By Thomas Fields-Meyer
Updated October 25, 1999 12:00 PM

At age 7, Jennifer Bush had suffered such chronic ill health—digestive problems, seizures, a weakened immune system—that she had been dropped by her parents’ insurance company and invited to a 1994 Washington, D.C., meeting to help make the case for health care reform. There, Jennifer gave Hillary Clinton her lucky silver dollar to pass on to the President—”to bring you good luck,” she said, “so everyone can have good insurance.”

In hindsight, it seems no amount of coverage could have warded off the greatest threat to Jennifer’s health: her own mother. On Oct. 7, a Florida jury convicted Kathy Bush, 42, of aggravated child abuse and fraud for deliberately making Jennifer ill. When police arrested the Coral Springs, Fla., mother of three in 1996 and authorities placed Jennifer in state custody, prosecutors charged that Kathy had a rare mental disorder called Munchausen syndrome by proxy, which impels those who suffer from it to make their children sick out of a pathological need for attention. “There was probably more abuse in this single case,” says assistant state attorney Bob Nichols, the lead prosecutor, “than in all of the child-abuse cases I’ve prosecuted in my life combined.”

In her first eight years, Jennifer was hospitalized more than 200 times, enduring more than 40 surgical procedures, including the removal of her gallbladder, appendix and part of her intestines. Since early childhood, she had had three tubes running into her body to medicate and feed her.

But as early as 1990, some hospital nurses noticed that the girl’s health often took a turn for the worse after visits from her mother. One nurse told police that once “Mrs. Bush came into [Jennifer’s] room and closed the curtain around the bed. [Jennifer] began to cry and say, ‘No, no, no.’ ” Looking through a crack in the curtain, the nurse said, she saw Kathy injecting a substance into Jennifer’s mouth with a syringe. (Backed by witnesses including doctors and nurses, Kathy’s lawyers argued that Jennifer’s illness was legitimate and portrayed Kathy as a model caregiver. Lawyer Robert Buschel dismissed the charges against Bush as “gossip, suppositions and innuendo.”)

From as early as 6 months of age, Jennifer was in and out of hospitals with a variety of ailments. After Kathy lost her job as a pediatrician’s office manager in 1993, she began caring for her full-time. Frustrated by her inability to secure health insurance for Jennifer, Kathy wrote to Hillary Clinton. Soon afterward, the Children’s Defense Fund invited mother and daughter to the lobbying event in Washington, where Kathy and Jennifer also testified before Congress about health care costs.

Meanwhile, back in Coral Springs, a suburb of Fort Lauderdale, Jennifer’s plight was attracting media attention—and more than $10,000 in charitable donations. Even as they accepted the money, say prosecutors, Kathy Bush and her husband, Craig. were installing a $20,000 swimming pool and buying a $25,000 motorcycle—purchases they say were not made with the donated money.

State officials investigated the matter as early as 1991 but, wary of the difficulty of proving such a case, didn’t take action until they received a complaint in April 1995 from a nurse at Memorial Regional Hospital in Hollywood, Fla. Police arrested Kathy Bush in April 1996. Within days, Jennifer was sent to Children’s Hospital Medical Center in Cincinnati, which has a unit specializing in feeding disorders. After watching the girl down pizza, hot dogs and candy bars, doctors concluded her feeding tubes could be removed.

For more than 3½ years, Jennifer has lived with a foster family, while Craig and Kathy Bush care for her brother Matthew, 18. (Brother Jason, 19, is a Marine in California.) The family saw Jennifer occasionally until May, when a state psychologist cut off the visits.

That has been heartbreaking for Craig, a pest-control sprayer, who was never implicated in the case and maintains that the state came after Kathy only after she complained publicly about health policy. The family has filed for bankruptcy, and their $155,000 home is in foreclosure. Kathy is free on bail awaiting sentencing on Nov. 18, facing up to 45 years in prison. “Our whole intention from the beginning was to save Jennifer’s life,” says prosecutor Nichols. The verdict, he adds, “was the icing on the cake.”

Thomas Fields-Meyer

Lori Rozsa and Fannie Weinstein in Coral Springs