Barbara Bush – the very definition of advocacy

Apr 25, 2018
Barbara Bush – the very definition of advocacy

Much-loved advocate, campaigner and former first lady Barbara Bush was laid to rest near her daughter Robin, who died of leukemia aged just three.

Barbara, who died on April 17 aged 92, and the only woman to see both her husband and her son become president of the U.S., was well-known for providing low-income families with literacy support programs.

Mourning her loss, Cheryl Davis, Director of External Stakeholder Engagement at Astellas, said: “Barbara Bush’s dedication to health equity and her unique talent to bring together stakeholders and invest in next generation leaders was the very definition of advocacy.”

Research supporter

Barbara had spoken openly about losing her daughter, who was given just weeks to live after being diagnosed with leukemia in 1953 – a time when the disease was largely untreatable.

In a 2012 interview, she told The Today Show: “The doctor said ‘you don’t do anything. She’s going to die. My advice is take her home, love her. In about two weeks she’ll be gone.’”

She and her husband were not willing to give up, however, and traveled across the country to find an early form of treatment. Tragically, Robin died seven months later, but the couple sought solace from donating the little girl’s body to medical research.

“I think it made me feel something good is coming out of this precious little life and today, almost nobody dies of leukemia,’ said Barbara.

The Bushes also set up The Bright Star Foundation to research the condition in Robin’s memory, and since then, survival rates have steadily grown.

The five-year survival rate for children with acute lymphocytic leukemia is now more than 85%. In acute myelogenous leukemia that figure now stands between 60% and 70%.1

First lady of literacy

Probably her most commonly known campaign issue is that of literacy. Barbara’s passion for helping people to read and write was born from her dedication in helping her son, Neil, overcome his struggle with dyslexia.

She founded The Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy in 1989, and the organization has since helped tens of thousands of people.

Based in Houston, Texas, the charity has generated more than $50m to help people, young and old, to learn to read.

Paying tribute, the organization said: “Barbara Bush believed the world would be a better place if more people could read, write and comprehend. That’s why she started the foundation and her legacy will continue to impact lives for generations to come.”

A statement on the group’s website features a quote on her mission — and it’s one that resonates with many.

“The American Dream is about equal opportunity for everyone who works hard. If we don’t give everyone the ability to simply read and write, then we aren’t giving everyone an equal chance to succeed,” she said.

AIDS taboo breaker

Barbara was also a staunch promoter of AIDS awareness when the disease was hugely misunderstood and highly stigmatized.

At a time when most people still thought the disease could easily spread through close contact, she made national headlines by cradling a patient at Grandma’s House pediatric AIDS care center. In 1990, she attended the funeral of Ryan White, a teenager who had fought to return to an Indiana public school after contracting the AIDS virus through a blood transfusion.


In honor of her long-standing commitment to children’s health, literacy and advocacy, Maine Medical Center named the Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital after her. She and her husband were both there when the hospital opened in 1998 and continued to be strong advocates for the center.

She is survived by her husband, George, their five children, 17 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.


  1. American Cancer Society (2016). Survival Rates for Childhood Leukemias. Available from: (accessed April 2018).
Barbara Bush – the very definition of advocacy

Astellas Patient Advocacy is a function within Corporate Affairs at Astellas that focuses on creating, building and maintaining third-party relationships. We serve as a conduit between Astellas and external stakeholders to help improve patient outcomes, improve access issues and address patients’ unmet needs head on.

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