In Focus

Cancer victim's friends come to Perry's defense

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Texas Governor Rick Perry is still taking heat for a controversial executive order he issued four years ago. It mandated that all 11- and 12-year-old girls be vaccinated for human papillomavirus, or HPV, a sexually transmitted virus that can cause cervical cancer. The now-overturned order is becoming a big issue in Perry's presidential campaign.

Governor Perry is taking a lot of criticism for the vaccine decision. The most damage seems to be due to the suggestion he forced a vaccine on 12-year-old girls to help a political donor.

The donor is Mike Toomey, a longtime friend and Perry's two-time chief of staff. Toomey has given $41,000 in campaign contributions to Perry while Perry has been governor. Only $9,000 of that was given before the HPV vaccine decision was made, though.

At the time Perry signed the executive order, Toomey was a lobbyist for the vaccine's manufacturer, Merck. Merck is the only worldwide manufacturer of Gardasil, the HPV vaccine. Merck, through its political action committee, has given $39,500 to Perry -- $22,000 of that before the decision.

It's a lot of money, but Governor Perry had raised tens of millions of dollars during this time. While his critics are saying the decision was motivated by politics and money, we found a Houston family that says another possible motivation was far more personal.

Until you've seen a special photograph, Craig Wilson says you don't know the whole story of Rick Perry's HPV vaccine decision.

"She's happy as hell. I mean, she is just unbelievably ecstatic," Wilson said. "Here she is on a beautiful ranch somewhere, riding on a motorcycle, which she's never really done, with the governor of the state of Texas."

The guy driving the motorcycle is Governor Rick Perry. The young woman on the back is Houstonian Heather Burcham, who was at that moment just 31 years old and a few months away from dying of cervical cancer.

Heather said in an interview prior to her death, "I feel like I'm not going in vain, because I can tell others about it."

When Heather was diagnosed, she set out to tell the world about her illness and the vaccine that would've prevented it. Her fear was that her pain and her death would mean nothing.

She said, "I kept thinking, 'What good can come from this?'"

After Governor Perry got in Texas trouble for signing an executive order in 2007 mandating the HPV vaccine, Heather tried to convince lawmakers to let it stand, and in the process met Governor Perry. But more than a meeting, it sparked a friendship.

Long after the order was rescinded and Perry lost the political fight, they kept talking. Heather had Perry's personal cell phone number and he invited her for a day at a friend's ranch.

Wilson, a friend of Heather's, recalled, "It was a great day, one of the great days of her life. She loved the whole thing."

Months later, when the end was near for Heather, Perry quietly snuck into Houston and sat by her bedside. No press, no statement -- just the governor and one of his 21 million constituents.

"I think he truly had a heart for this young woman," said Mary Lee, one of Heather's friends.

Four years later, Perry is once again in trouble for his decision.

Rep. Michele Bachmann asked during a debate, "The question is, is it about life or was it about millions of dollars and potentially billions for a drug company?"

Wilson said, "Does she know anything about what had happened at the time? Absolutely not."

Heather's friends are angry. They say they knew a governor motivated not by politics, but by protecting young girls.

"It solidified that he was doing the right thing," Wilson said.

Before she died, Heather was proud she could speak out.

"That just means that God is not done using me," she said.

Her friends think there is still something coming from it.

Wilson said, "Even this garbage that his rivals are bringing up brings the HPV and the Gardasil shot back on the front page. So now hopefully even more people know that it's out there."

Heather was especially to close us at Channel 13. She worked with us for a time. We thank her and her family for sharing those stories and those photos that have never before been made public.

(Copyright ©2014 KTRK-TV/DT. All Rights Reserved.)

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