A reminder of what was at stake in Perry vaccine controversy

Posted Saturday, Sep. 17, 2011  comments  Print Reprints

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kennedy She was 31, and her last wish was to save girls from cervical cancer.

Now, four years after her death, Heather Burcham is making headlines and saving lives again -- this time, in the middle of Gov. Rick Perry's Republican presidential campaign.

When Perry was dogged by opponents and reporters last week about his short-lived 2007 order requiring girls to be vaccinated against HPV, he never mentioned Heather.

But in her last months of life, long after legislative pressure had forced him to rescind the order, he phoned and visited her in Houston, even taking the 80-pound terminal cancer patient for a play day at a friend's ranch.

Houston developer Craig Wilson, who first hired Burcham as a nanny and came to love her as a family friend, said Perry proved that he meant to save lives, not get publicity.

"He could have brought up this weepy story about Heather and made it a big heart-tugging story," Wilson said Friday.

"He didn't, because he didn't befriend her for publicity. He did it because he's a real human being."

The story of Perry's friendship with Burcham was retold Thursday by her former co-workers at ABC affiliate KTRK in Houston, including snapshots of Perry taking Burcham for a motorcycle ride and visiting her bedside.

"I like to think Heather's up in heaven, stirring the pot," Wilson said.

"She wants us all to remember that if this shot had been available when she was 11 or 12, she might not be dead."

He criticized Michele Bachmann's complaints about the vaccine and maker Merck & Co.'s campaign contributions.

"She boxed herself into that 'all vaccines are evil' camp," Wilson said.

"And saying he did it for the money -- look, there was no reason for the governor to be so kind to Heather. He was trying to do good."

Wilson and his father, developer and University of Houston Regent Welcome Wilson, had introduced Burcham to the governor so she could help promote the vaccine.

Craig Wilson reserved special scorn for a Texas House committee considering a bill to overturn Perry's order.

"They treated Heather like dirt," he said.

Burcham waited hours to testify but had to leave because she was too weak.

"What we heard is that Republicans from North Texas didn't want it encouraging girls to be promiscuous," Wilson said.

"That is the most stupid thing I've ever heard in my life. My daughters got vaccinated. All they asked was, 'I gotta get another shot?' But the Republicans up there threw a shoe at the whole thing because of all this sex stupidity."

Burcham left a video that remains on the governor's page at YouTube.com/GovernorPerry.

"I don't want to have lived in vain," she said.

"If I could help one child, take this cancer away from one child, it would mean the world."

It's the best message of this campaign.

Bud Kennedy's column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

Twitter @budkennedy


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