HPV Vaccinee: Perry Befriended Dying Woman

Photo courtesy: The Wilson family

Since the first day of his presidential campaign, Texas Gov.  Rick Perry has cast his executive order requiring young girls receive the HPV vaccine as a mistake, but this newfound admittance of wrongdoing is a stark contrast from his strict commitment to having made the right choice in the years following the decision.

Months after the Texas state legislature revoked the executive decision, Perry expressed in very personal terms the potential the HPV vaccine holds for preventing cervical cancer in young women. Perry spoke of the missed opportunity of the Texas government at a memorial service for Heather Burcham, a 31-year-old woman who died from cervical cancer after contracting HPV.

“Though some could not see the benefits of the HPV vaccine through the prism of politics, some day they will,” Perry said in July 2007. “Someday they will recognize that this could happen to anyone’s daughter, even their own. Someday they will respond with compassion when they once responded with ignorance. And, someday, they will come to a place where they recognize the paramount issue is whether we will choose life, and protect life, without regard to what mistakes, if any, have been made in the past.”

Learn more about Heather Burcham.

Read more about politics and the HPV vaccine.

Perry and Burcham, a teacher from Houston, Texas, struck up an unusual friendship in the months after he issued his executive order. While the Texas legislature was working to revoke the mandate, Burcham traveled to Austin to testify about her personal experience with cervical cancer and how the HPV vaccine might help spare other young women from suffering a fate similar to her own. Burcham was misdiagnosed by doctors when she was 26. Five years later, Doctors detected her cervical cancer when it was too advanced for treatment to be effective.

Ted Oberg from ABC’s Houston affiliate KTRK reported first Burcham and Perry.

Months later, she died in July of 2007, but she used the final months of her life to fight for the potential effectiveness of the HPV vaccine in preventing cervical cancer in young girls. Despite the legislature’s decision to revoke the executive order, Perry befriended Burcham. In the final months of her life, the two took a motorcycle ride together and spent a weekend at a ranch with her friends at the governor’s invitation.

In the final days before her death, Perry even sat at her deathbed, a moment he has described on the campaign trail.  ”I sat on the side of a bed of a young lady, and she was dying from cervical cancer, and it had an impact on me.”

“When you meet someone like Heather, your first reaction is this is not supposed to happen. Mothers were not meant to bury their daughters. Young women in the prime of their lives, who have not lived their dreams like getting married and having children, are not supposed to die,” Perry said at her memorial service in July 2007. “Her suffering had a purpose, and that purpose was to shine light on a groundbreaking vaccine that can protect our wives, sisters and daughters from a deadly cancer. And even though her voice has been silenced by cancer, her spirit echoes from the grave to parents and families across Texas urging them to inoculate their daughters and protect them from the harm that could come to them even if they make right decisions.”

While Perry has admitted making a mistake in not consulting the legislature on the HPV vaccine, he has continued to say that he made the decision based on one factor – fighting cancer. But Republican rivals have hammered Rick Perry for engaging in “crony capitalism,” basing his decision to mandate the HPV vaccine for young girls on political and financial gain for himself, aides close to him, and the drug company manufacturing the drug.

At the debate Monday night, Rep. Michele Bachmann accused Perry of basing his decision to mandate the HPV vaccine for young girls political benefits and donations from Merck, the pharmaceutical company manufacturing the vaccine called Gardasil.

“It was a $5,000 contribution that I had received from them. I raise about $30 million. And if you’re saying that I can be bought for $5,000, I’m offended,” Perry said in defense Monday night. But the $5,000 Perry referenced was only the amount Merck donated the year before he issued the executive order.

In fact, the $5,000 was donated on the same day members of Perry’s staff met for an HPV vaccine briefing, according to documents obtained by several news organizations. Perry’s office began meeting with Merck lobbyists as early as mid-August of 2006, according to the AP.

CBS News obtained internal government e-mails detailing meetings and lunches between Perry’s staff and lobbyists for Merck that began two months after Gardasil was approved and continued through Perry’s executive order in February 2007. In Perry’s ten years as governor, Merck donated $29,500 to the governor’s campaigns, and one of Merck’s chief lobbyists, Mike Toomey, was a former chief of staff to Perry. Merck has paid Toomey over $300,000 in the past ten years to lobby for the pharmaceutical company.