Leaning on Her Faith: Nan Bush
It started in 2011 with a 5:00 a.m. wake-up call from the Dane County Coroner to tell Nan and her husband Terry Bush that their daughter Allison unexpectedly died at 24 years old. About a year later, their son Nick nearly died of a drug overdose. Doctors didn’t expect him to survive. But more than a week later he walked out of the hospital and his parents drove him straight to a rehab facility that kickstarted his sobriety. Four years after that, a hospital in St. Paul, Minnesota called to tell them their 22-year-old youngest son Austin was unconscious and on life support. With irreversible and extensive brain damage, and no hope for recovery, his parents took doctors’ advice and halted life support.
For one family to lose two – and nearly three of their four – children is simply more than most people can fathom.
“It was excruciatingly painful both times,” Bush said. “With Austin it was even harder. We had to watch him die and we had to participate in it.”
Emotionally gutted, Nan turned to her faith. And her faith helped keep her afloat when she and Terry felt like they were utterly drowning in grief.
“I don’t know how I would’ve made it without my faith and the prayers of others,” Bush said.
After Allison died, Bush said she struggled to even leave her bed. But her faith buoyed her.
“Before I got out of bed each morning I said a prayer of gratitude; I would list all the things I was grateful for, such as my remaining children, my husband, our health, home, extended family, friends,” she said. “I found I had a very long list of things I was grateful for and it would strengthen me to list each of my many blessings.”
Nan and Terry went to marriage and grief counseling. They tried their best to comfort their two remaining children. And most of all, they prayed.
“Prayer softens the harsh edges of grief and smoothes the rough reality of loss,” Bush said in a National Day of Prayer speech in May at the KI Convention Center in Green Bay.
Today, at their newly built home in Dyckesville, they have a small memorial set up for Allison and Austin: Their ashes are buried just outside their home with gravestones visible from the living room. Nick repurposed a weathered wooden fencepost into a cross that’s nestled between their headstones and the Bushes purchased a metal sculpture they refer to as the “Joyful Spirits.” They take time to honor their children and talk about them at every opportunity.
“Sometimes people have the mistaken impression that they shouldn’t mention Allison and Austin because it will sadden us,” Bush said. “But it’s the exact opposite. It helps to talk about them. Every time someone says their name, it brings them back for us.”
As he drums up interest in his newly published memoir, their son Nick has taken the task of talking about his late siblings to heart. Nick nearly died of a heroin overdose in 2012, but has since found sobriety after his parents took him directly from the hospital to a month-long opiate rehabilitation center. He has been interviewed on the Today Show and wrote an op-ed for USA Today promoting his book “One by One: A Memoir of Love and Loss in the Shadows of Opioid America” in which he alleges that Austin and Allison’s deaths were due to heroin overdoses. It’s a claim that the Bushes vehemently deny.
Bush said she was blindsided to read his memoir, “We’re heartbroken to see how different his recollections are from ours of his childhood,” Bush said. “We love all of our children unconditionally. We want nothing but the best for him and we continue to pray for his healing and recovery.”
Following Austin’s death, the Bushes established a scholarship in his name for youth mission work through their church. They fund another scholarship through the Green Bay Youth Hockey Association to help families pay to participate. Austin, a lifelong hockey player, is also the namesake behind a youth hockey tournament at Cornerstone Community Center each January.
Allison, who suffered from chronic pain resulting from the shingles virus, was studying pre-med at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and hoped to become an anesthesiologist specializing in pain management. To honor her dream, the Bushes funded the Allison Hunt Bush Welcome Center at the entrance to the Bellin Health Neuro Team building.
“We’ve heard from many doctors who’ve said the plaque and soothing photograph of Allison calms patients who are coming from far away for treatment and are nervous about what to expect,” Bush said.
Bush can visit her daughter’s plaque frequently, as she works for the health system as the director of the Bellin Health Foundation – the philanthropy and fundraising arm of Bellin.
As director of the foundation, Bush is involved in raising funds to support programs and services at the Bellin Health system through grants, fundraising and philanthropy. Her work with the foundation helps people, corporations and other foundations help patients throughout Northeastern Wisconsin. Bush chairs the annual fundraiser called the Black Tie and Blue Jean Extravaganza held at the Packer Atrium.
“All my work is based on relationships, so I spend a great deal of my time maintaining and stewarding relationships – relationships with people in the community, physicians and staff,” Bush said. “I get to meet, to know and work with a lot of really great people.”
“This is really the third career for me,” Bush said. “There’s a body of knowledge to fundraising that I never had in my previous roles.”
Bush initially worked as a registered nurse, and eventually in health care management after receiving her master’s degree in health care administration. But after Lindsay was born, she chose to stay at home to raise all four children. After about two decades as a stay-at-home mom, she returned to work, this time as director of Women’s and Children’s Services for Bellin. In 2008 she was named director of the Bellin Health Foundation.
A CAFFEINATED CAREER CHANGE
Terry had been successful in the food sciences industry. He followed in his father Bob Bush’s footsteps by working at Schreiber Foods in Green Bay. But in 1992, he left the industry to pave a new path. In 2014 he envisioned a return to the food industry and began researching trends in the retail market. Two years later he launched an organic coffee company. Meanwhile, the Bushes were packing up their belongings to move and Nan discovered Allison’s spiral-bound notebook in which she’d record humorous phrases from her mom.
“Allison had told me that I live in my own little world – that I live in Nanland,” Bush said. “She had entitled the notebook ‘Notes from Nanland.’”
And so, in 2016, Nanland Organic Coffee was launched. Nanland offers four varieties of single origin coffee available in K-cups, though Bush said bags of whole beans may be in the company’s future.
Coffee, while chosen from a business standpoint, holds a special memory for Bush.
“My mom and grandma would have their little coffee klatsches and I would ask to join in,” Bush recalls of her early childhood. “They’d share with me some cream and sugar in a mug, so to this day when I have a cup of coffee it still makes me feel connected to them.”
Bush lends her time to various community organizations, stressing the importance of helping those less fortunate. She has volunteered for the Green Bay Children’s Museum, Service League of Green Bay and Encompass. But the organization that perhaps holds a larger piece of her heart is the Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) of Brown County. She started out in 2008 as a volunteer advocate, shepherding a total of four children through the system and recently completed a two-year term as CASA board president.
“After Allison died, I gave up all my volunteer work except for CASA because that little girl was depending on me,” she said of her time as an advocate. “You become the one consistent adult in that child’s life. They usually move from one school to the next, and one home to the next, so you end up being the one adult in that child’s life to follow them wherever they go.”
There was one facet of the CASA program that bothered Bush, however. The child-advocate connection ceased on the day the child entered their safe, permanent home and his or her case closed in the court system. As a member of the CASA board, Bush suggested leaving the door open – if the volunteer and the child’s family chose – for advocates to remain a steady presence in the child’s life by transferring the relationship to the Big Brothers Big Sisters program. Now that’s an option for these children.
“I’d like to take on another advocate role sometime and continue through as a Big Sister,” Bush said.
When she isn’t busy with her work at the Bellin Health Foundation and Nanland Organic Coffee, Bush makes time for music (she’s an accomplished vocalist who dreamed of a career as a singer), exercising (though a recent knee replacement has her taking it a bit easier while she fully heals) and spending time with her family.
At 90 and 92 years old, Bush’s parents still live in Brookfield, where she was born. Terry’s parents have a residence next door to their new home. Their oldest child, Lindsay, lives with her husband and three children in Vienna, Virginia, and their son Nick lives with his wife and their two children in Kansas City, Missouri. w