"He's a very strong-minded individual," longtime friend John Sununu tells PEOPLE of George H.W. Bush

By Diane Herbst
Updated April 16, 2018 12:19 PM
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At 90, President George H.W. Bush was wheelchair-bound yet made a parachute jump from a plane to celebrate his birthday. The following year, he recovered from a fall that had left him with a broken vertebra in his neck.

Now in stable condition in the ICU of Houston Methodist Hospital as he’s being being treated for pneumonia, Bush’s friends are convinced that the 92-year-old’s steely constitution will once again pull him through.

“He’s a very strong-minded individual, he would not have achieved all he has without being that way,” John H. Sununu, who served as White House chief of staff when Bush was president, tells PEOPLE.

“I am confident that he is more than ready, willing and able to get through this,” says Sununu, author of a 2015 biography, The Quiet Man, of his close friend. “He’s been through two or three of these and always figures out how to come out of them, that’s what we feel is going to happen.”

On Wednesday, four days after Bush entered Houston Methodist, his wife of 72 years, Barbara, 91, was admitted to the same hospital “as a precaution” with “coughing and exhaustion,” and is being treated for bronchitis.

She is now “1000-percent better,” according to Bush’s post-White House spokesman, Jim McGrath.

Bonnie Steinroeder, a longtime family friend and the couple’s former pastor at the First Congregational Church in Kennebunkport, tells PEOPLE she is not surprised both fell ill together.

“She is such a strong person in every way,” Steinroeder says. “My hunch is, it takes a lot out of you to see somebody you love so much [fall ill].”

Adds Steinroeder: “I was so distressed to hear they were both in the hospital.”

Sununu thinks it’s just coincidence that both Bushes were hospitalized at the same time.

“She’s a strong lady and I don’t think it’s a cause and effect,” he says. “It’s winter, and when you are over 90 you are susceptible to respiratory issues.”

Sununu last saw George H.W. Bush in October in Texas. “He was chipper, we had a great conversation, we were talking about the election, my son was running for governor, and he seemed quite good, as good as I’d seen him in a long time.”

“He was strong, we had a good conversation,” Sununu continues. “He was quite interested in what was happening in the election cycle. ”

Bush’s longtime friend and colleague C. Boyden Gray tells PEOPLE that when he last saw George and Barbara Bush at their Kennebunkport home in August, they were “both a little frail but mentally they were both on top of everything.”

He added that “the president’s short term memory isn’t all that great, but that happens to everybody.”

Gray, who met Bush in 1980 and served as White House Counsel to Bush when he was vice president during the Reagan administration, and later when he was president, also watched a Yale-Texas A&M baseball game with Bush during the visit.

“He was fine, as fine as you can expect,” says Gray. “He has a form of Parkinson’s which as you know has permanently put him in a wheelchair. He has a strong character, he was a great world-class athlete and generally in good shape so I think he will get through this.”