David Vetter, the Bubble Boy


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David Phillip Vetter (September 21, 1971 – February 22, 1984) was a boy from Shenandoah, Texas, United States who suffered from a rare genetic disease now known as severe combined immune deficiency syndrome (SCID). Forced to live in a sterile environment, he became popular with the media as the boy in the plastic bubble. He spent most of his life at Texas Children's Hospital, but in 1981, David was discharged to his parents' full-time care. He died of cancer in 1984 after an unmatched bone marrow transplant from his sister.


David's parents, David Joseph Vetter Jr. and Carol Ann Vetter, had one daughter, Katherine; their first son, named David Joseph Vetter III, died seven months after birth. Doctors said that the baby boy had been born with a defective thymus, a gland which is important in the functioning of the immune system, due to a genetic condition, SCID. Each further son the couple might conceive would have a 50% chance of inheriting the same condition. Three doctors from Baylor College of Medicine — John Montgomery, Mary Ann South and Raphael Wilson — told the Vetters that if they had another child with SCID, the child could be placed in a sterile isolator until a bone marrow transplant could be performed, using the older sister, Katherine, as a donor. The couple were anxious to have another child to carry on the family name. So, believing that after a short treatment their child could live a normal life, they decided to go through another pregnancy. However, after the birth of David, it was discovered that Katherine was not a match, thus removing the possibility of the transplant. There was no private or public discussion of what would happen if no cure was found, or how long the prospective child would remain in the bubble.


A special sterilized cocoon bed was prepared for David at his birth. Less than 10 seconds after being removed from his mother's womb, David entered the plastic germ-free environment that would be his home for most of his life. Devout Catholics, the Vetters arranged for Dr. Raphael Wilson, who was also a monk, to baptize David once he had entered the bubble with sterilized holy water.


The doctors had decided that a bone marrow transplant might give David's immune system a jump start; however they had expected that David's sister, Katherine, would be a match. Unfortunately, that was not the case. Now, what was set up as a temporary solution had become his home, and as he grew, they had to allocate a hospital room in which he could live. As the years went by, David moved to other environments in the hospital, each one bigger to fit him and the bubble.


Water, air, food, diapers, clothes, all were disinfected with special cleaning agents before entering his cocoon. He was handled only through special plastic gloves attached to the walls. Before anything could go into the bubble, extra glue and labels would be removed, the product would be placed in a chamber filled with ethylene oxide gas for four hours at 140 degrees Fahrenheit (60?C), and then aerated for a period of one to seven days before it could finally go in the bubble.


The bubble had very loud motors that would keep it inflated, which made it difficult for David to have conversations and for people listening to hear him. When David was three, a playroom was added to his bubble, measuring 11 feet (3.4 m) long, six and a half feet wide and eight feet tall. When a United Press International photographer arrived to document David's first venture into his new playroom, David refused to go into the new addition to his bubble. David's mother called in Mary Murphy, a woman working on her doctorate in psychology and who had met David once before. Murphy convinced David to go into the playroom section to get a better glimpse of a goldfish she held, and she was then invited back for therapy sessions with David.
The researchers and his parents tried to give him a life as normal as possible: he had formal education and watched TV (the Hospital provided him with a small television set in his bubble). However, he longed to participate in the outside world that he could see out the window and on television. He said on one occasion: "Whatever I do depends on what somebody else decides I do. Why school? Why did you make me learn to read? What good will it do? I won't ever be able to do anything anyway. So why? You tell me why."
By 1974, David, around age 3 could spend up to two or three weeks at a time at his parents' home in Conroe, Texas in a bubble set up for him there. When he was home, his sister would sleep in the living room next to his bubble. The two siblings were close, although they would sometimes even have physical fights and shoving matches using the gloves into the bubble. Once, David punched Katherine using the gloves and then went to the other side of the bubble, where he couldn't be reached with the gloves. However, in the end Katherine would have the upper hand in their disagreements: she could threaten to unplug his bubble, which she did a few times. Even if his primary bubble deflated, he had a separate area he could go into while he asked her to plug the bubble back in.


When David was four years old, he discovered he could poke holes in his cocoon using a butterfly syringe that was left in his possession by accident. This led his doctor, Raphael Wilson, Ph.D., to tell David about germs and David's special condition for the first time. Murphy would help David through any crisis he may have, but she said that David's nurses mostly wanted him to "behave" and "be compliant".
Eventually, David realized what his life would be like, according to Murphy: "Even though David was only five, he recognized his difference and dreaded what the future held - limited choices, feelings of alienation and an increased need to be polite and compliant so as not to reveal his anger".
Many famous dignitaries, including members of royalty and opera singer Beverly Sills (whose childhood nickname coincidentally was "Bubbles"), visited David at Texas Children's and he "served as a kind of tourist attraction for VIPs".


After many years, David's situation became unbearable. The small expectations for finding a cure were still the same as a preteen as when he was a baby. Doctors feared that as a teenager he would become even more unpredictable and uncontrollable. The U.S. government spoke about cutting the research funding as it showed no results and there was a growing debate over the ethics of that experiment, with public opinion becoming less supportive of the project. A total of more than $1.3 million was spent on David's care.


In 1980, when David was around age 9, his new doctors, Ralph Feigin and William Shearer, suggested placing him on a regime of gamma globulin and antibiotics and removing him from the bubble in the hopes that his immune system had improved, but since that almost certainly would have condemned him to death, his parents refused after consulting with the original three doctors. Montgomery said, "For these many years we had had a success story, and should this happen, this would be the ultimate declaration that it was a failure, that the whole thing was a failure."


Three years later, at the advice of the original trio of doctors who had encouraged them to have David in the first place, David's parents decided to allow his medical team to perform an unmatched bone marrow transplant, with marrow donated by his sister Katherine. Attempts to find a matched bone marrow donor since his birth had been unsuccessful, and advances had recently been made in unmatched bone marrow operations. Baylor filmed the operation against David's wishes, and the marrow was given to David through intravenous lines running into the bubble.



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The 1984 transplant operation went well, and for a few months hope was high that David would be able to leave the bubble. However, a few months after the operation, David became sick for the first time in his life; he started having diarrhea, fever and severe vomiting from intestinal bleeding. These symptoms were so severe that David had to be taken out of the bubble for treatment. In response to a direct question from his father on whether he wished to be taken out of the bubble, David replied, "Daddy, I will agree to anything to feel better." Out of the bubble, he continued to get worse and sank into a coma; his mother was able to touch his skin for the first and last time before he died. He died 15 days later on February 22, 1984 of Burkitt's lymphoma at the age of 12.
Katherine's bone marrow contained traces of a dormant virus, Epstein-Barr, which had been undetectable in the pre-transplant screening. Once inside of David's body, the virus spread and produced hundreds of cancerous tumors, which were revealed in the autopsy.
David had always wanted to try Coca-Cola, after seeing it in many commercials and hearing about it from other children, but the sterilization process required to insert it into the bubble ruined the taste. After he exited the bubble, he requested a Coke but was turned down. His mother said "David had heard the word Coke so often on TV and from other children that he always yearned to try one. It was one of the first things he asked for when he was taken out of his bubble before he died. But the doctors decided he shouldn't have one in his frail condition."