Gladys Rivera, her son Felix, daughter Marisela, and son William with Vice President George H.W. Bush at the White House in 1987.

North Shore doctor will never forget the day that President George H.W. Bush called

It was a Saturday afternoon in summer of 2004 and Marisela Marrero was back home in Puerto Rico on vacation after graduating from Harvard Medical School. She was on her way to visit her uncle when her cell phone rang and “Private” showed up on caller ID.

If that were to happen today, she might very well hit “Decline” figuring it was an unwanted telemarketing call. Fortunately, she hit “Accept” and got the surprise of her life.

“Is this Marisela Marrero?” asked a man with a slight Southern drawl, and Marrero immediately knew who was on the line, though she could hardly believe the 41st president of the United States was calling her.

“This is George Bush from Texas,” he said, eliciting an “Oh, my God!” from Marrero, who found herself repeating that refrain.

The connection between Marrero, who worked as an ER doctor at Union and Salem hospitals from 2008-17 and lived in Revere until moving to Boston earlier this year, and George H.W. Bush, who died at his Houston home Friday, can be traced to a fatal fire in Puerto Rico on New Year’s Eve 1986.

Marrero’s father, Manuel de Jesus Marrero, was a U.S. Secret Service agent stationed in his native Puerto Rico when he was called to the Dupont Plaza Hotel to investigate some suspected counterfeit money. Hotel workers who were locked in a bitter labor dispute with management set a few small fires that were intended to scare some of the guests away and cost the hotel business.

A major fire ensued and 96 people were killed, including Marrero, one of only 37 Secret Service agents to die in the line of duty in the 153-year history of the agency. As children of a U.S. government employee, Marisela Marrero, who was 8 at the time,  and her brothers, William and Felix, attended the Antilles Consolidated Military School, recognized as one of the best in Puerto Rico. After their father died, the family received a letter informing them the children were no longer eligible to attend the school, much to the chagrin of their mother, Gladys Rivera.

The following summer the Marrero family was invited to Washington, D.C. to accept an award presented posthumously to Manuel Marrero. Despite being advised that the ceremony was neither the time nor place to address the school issue, Rivera, who spoke limited English, brought it up with Vice President George H.W. Bush, who asked her to write him a letter and he would have the White House attorneys look into the matter.

The result of that conversation was the passing of House Bill 3439 — an independent bill that was written specifically for the three Marrero children, allowing them to return to the government-run school. The Judiciary Committee report on the bill was filed by U.S. Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts. President Ronald Reagan signed it into law on May 5, 1988, a year after Bush was made aware of the situation.

Marisela Marrero ended up going to Yale, Bush’s alma mater. Shortly before graduating from Harvard Medical School, she wrote a letter to Bush, expressing her heartfelt thanks for “this amazing thing you did for me that changed my life,” she recalled Sunday when reflecting on that correspondence.

“I started recounting what happened that day in 1986 and I gave him the timeline of what occurred after the law was passed,” said Marrero, who told Bush of her college and medical school experience. “All these amazing things were possible because of what you did for me and my family,” she wrote, inviting Bush to her medical school graduation.

Bush didn’t make the ceremony, but Marrero’s letter clearly impacted him enough to make that phone call several weeks later.

“I can’t believe you are calling me,” she told Bush, prompting him to tell her he had to call after the beautiful letter she had sent him.

“You are living the American Dream and I am so proud of you,” the former American president told the young woman from Puerto Rico, who wasn’t even sure she would be able to cut it academically at Yale, let alone in medical school.

Bush asked about her mother and her brothers, who both went on to work for the U.S. government, and told Marrero he was under the weather with a cold and wondered whether she might be able to help, since she was now a doctor.

“Mr. President, I will take care of you anywhere in the world for the rest of my life,” she told him.

On the day in 1987 that Marrero, who is now vice president of operations for Steward Health Care, visited the White House with her mother and brothers, the award was presented by James Baker, who was serving as Secretary of the Treasury, the agency which had oversight of the Secret Service (it now comes under the auspices of Homeland Security).

On Friday night in Houston, Baker was with his longtime friend, George H.W. Bush, when he passed from this life to the next.

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