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Two nurses wrapped gauze around a young burn victim at the Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital in Cape Town, where Barbara Bush is said to be working as a volunteer.
Two nurses wrapped gauze around a young burn victim at the Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital in Cape Town, where Barbara Bush is said to be working as a volunteer. (Globe Staff Photo / John Donnelly)

Bush daughter is said to volunteer in S. Africa

CAPE TOWN -- At the Red Cross War Memorial Children's Hospital, children sit on their mothers' laps in waiting rooms, waddle down hallways, and wail inside the burn unit, where nurses carefully wrap gauze around their arms, legs, and heads.

It is here, say some doctors and nurses, that Barbara Bush, one of President Bush's twin daughters, has been working in near anonymity as a volunteer.

While no one disputes that she has been in Cape Town for the last six weeks, nearly everything about her stay is shrouded in mystery. Hospital officials yesterday refused to confirm her presence, and many hospital workers ducked questions about Barbara Bush's role at one of the premier health facilities in Africa for children with AIDS and other ailments.

A White House official, Peter Watkins, confirmed yesterday that her mother, Laura Bush, will visit Barbara in South Africa later this week, after the Group of Eight summit in Scotland where President Bush and other leaders of the industrialized world will consider how they can help ease poverty in Africa. The official said Laura Bush and her other daughter, Jenna, will spend five days with Barbara and then will travel to other African countries to speak about AIDS relief and education initiatives.

Barbara Bush's experience in Africa might seem a made-to-order moment for good publicity, a chance for the Bush family to show a connection between policy and personal conviction. But the Bushes apparently will have none of that.

Watkins declined to say anything about Barbara Bush's stay in South Africa, noting that on principle the White House does not discuss the activities of the president's daughters, mainly because of security concerns.

But like the Clintons before them, the Bush family also treasures privacy for twins Barbara and Jenna. With the notable exception of last year's presidential campaign, the 23-year-old Bush daughters have rarely sought the limelight. Any publicity has mostly been the negative kind, including underage drinking incidents.

It appears that Cape Town residents are willing to oblige the family's desire for privacy.

''Isn't it charming that everyone here in Cape Town has pretty much left Barbara all alone?" said Dr. Mitch Besser, who works with pregnant women infected with HIV. He said he heard about Barbara from a young associate in his program.

''You don't hear about her partying, or being out around the town," Besser said. ''All you know is she is here and volunteering at Red Cross Children's Hospital. I think it is great that the kid of a president can do that quietly."

Both mother and daughter apparently were deeply touched two years ago when they visited a pediatric AIDS unit in Botswana run by Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. After the visit, which was part of President Bush's six-day swing through Africa, Laura Bush said, ''My message is there is hope for children all over the world who suffer from AIDS and other diseases as well, that they are really surrounded by love."

Later, a White House spokesman said the Africa trip inspired Barbara Bush to work with those infected by HIV. But after earning a bachelor's degree in humanities at Yale University in May 2004, she did not pursue a chance to work in the Baylor program.

''When she visited the center in Botswana, she told me she was interested in international health and pediatric AIDS," Dr. Mark Kline, professor of pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine, said yesterday. ''She said, 'I just love to do this work.' . . . She called me and said she was interested and we talked about what she might do with the program," but nothing happened.

No one at the Red Cross hospital would discuss how Barbara Bush ended up helping there, or what she is doing each day.

Hospital spokeswoman Diana R.B. Ross said she had heard nothing about Barbara Bush working as a volunteer. ''That's news to me," she said yesterday, standing outside the hospital as children streamed in and out of the building.

Nasrina Teladia, director of the Friends of the Children's Hospital, which runs a volunteer program for the hospital, said Barbara Bush did not sign up through her organization. ''I wasn't aware she was with us," Teladia said. ''Of course, she could have come through special channels."

The Red Cross hospital is set against the majestic backdrop of Table Mountain to the west. The six-story facility was founded during World War II and now is the only hospital dedicated for children in sub-Saharan Africa, according to its literature.

Several weeks before she arrived in May, US embassy officials in Pretoria did an extensive security check on the building, with the understanding that Bush would spend much time at the hospital, a US official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

More than 20 hospital employees, asked if they had firsthand knowledge of Barbara Bush's work, said they had not worked with her.

One doctor, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said, ''We know she's been here, but we don't want to talk about it."

A hospital administrator, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said that friends had told her that Bush volunteered a few times a week in the children's burn unit.

Inside Unit C2 yesterday afternoon, the corridor was quiet. The walls are adorned with murals of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and each room is named after a fairy tale. There's the ''Peter Pan Ward," the ''Bambi Ward," and the ''Goldilocks and the Three Bears Ward."

But in the ''dressing room," where nurses take off gauze and put on new bandages, a small boy screamed in pain as two nurses wrapped his head in white.

At the nurse's station, also called ''Thumbelina's Office," the supervisor said she may have met Bush, but couldn't be certain. ''We have so many volunteers, and since no one signs in, we don't always know who they are," said the supervisor, who declined to give her name.

Michael Kranish of the Globe staff contributed to this report from Washington. John Donnelly can be reached at donnelly@globe.com

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