AIDS worker remembers when Barbara Bush cradled baby Donovan in 1989

When Barbara Bush picked up a sick baby boy and quelled his tears, advocates say she also helped change the national conversation about HIV/AIDS.

Former first lady's visit to children's hospice helped combat AIDS stigma, says Joan McCarley

First lady Barbara Bush holds an infant identified as Donavan during a visit to Grandma's House in Washington, March 22, 1989. (Dennis Cook/Associated Press)
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When Barbara Bush picked up a sick baby boy and quelled his tears with her "grandmotherly touch," advocates say she also helped change the national conversation about HIV/AIDS.

A photo of Bush cradling an infant during a 1989 visit to a hospice for children with AIDS is once again garnering international attention as people mourn the former U.S. first lady who died Tuesday at the age of 92.

It came at the height of the AIDS epidemic, when stigma and misinformation about the disease was rampant, said Joan McCarley, who was executive director of the Grandma's House hospice in Washington when Bush visited.

"Many, many people were afraid to touch a child or an adult — afraid of tears, afraid of any body fluid," McCarley told As It Happens guest host Susan Bonner.

"It was the first time that anyone that we were aware of in a presidential office really reached out to personally and publicly touch someone with HIV/AIDS."

'Give me that baby'

Grandma's House was one of the first residences in the U.S. created to care for children with HIV/AIDS.

Many of them, either orphaned or abandoned, were trapped in the foster system with little to no chance at adoption, McCarley said. 

Bush arranged to visit Grandma's House in March 1989, just a few months after her husband George W. H. Bush was inaugurated as president.

First lady Barbara Bush holding a baby while a two-year-old child takes a photo with a toy camera at a hospice for children with AIDS. (The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)

She met with a number of children before being led up to a bedroom to see Donovan, an infant too sickly to come down for the big event.

When the first lady walked into the room, Donovan began crying loudly, McCarley said.

She said she and her colleague tried to console the child to no avail. 

"Mrs. Bush said to us, 'Girls, you're doing a great job, but give me that baby. I'm a grandmother and he'll stop crying when I hold him," McCarley said. 

They handed the sobbing infant to the first lady. 

"The way she was holding him and soothing him so close to her, she did have that grandmotherly touch," McCarley said.

"He stopped crying just as she had said he would."

An Associated Press photographer captured the tender moment.

"At that moment we didn't think about the tremendous impact that it would have worldwide," McCarley said. 

'I hugged that darling young man'

A group of adult men with AIDS were also on hand for the visit, McCarley said.

Bush met with the men for a private discussion, and one of them asked a question. 

"He says, 'Mrs. Bush, I'm a man who's living with AIDS. Would you give me a hug?' And she said, 'Why not?'" McCarley said.

"That was so touching, because [people] were resistant to touching a child, let alone an adult."

Joan McCarley was the executive director of Grandma’s House in 1989 when then-first lady Barbara Bush visited the sick children and posed for photographs. (Submitted by Joan McCarley)

Bush herself later recounted the story to reporters. 

"I especially remember a young man who told us that he had been asked to leave his church studies when it was discovered he had AIDS. His parents also had disowned him, and he said he longed to be hugged again by his mother," Bush said at the time. 

"A poor substitute, I hugged that darling young man and did it again in front of the cameras. But what he really needed was family."

'It opened doors'

Baby Donovan died a few years after the first lady's visit. But the impact she had on the hospice lasts to this day, McCarley said. 

Bush's appearance put Grandma's House in the international spotlight. The hospice later played host to a number of big-name visitors, including Princess Diana. 

"We really believe it opened doors," McCarley said.

"Compassion and love is something that travels, and real compassion and care is contagious."

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from Associated Press. Interview produced by Alison Masemann.