Remembering Little David Vetter, The Bubble Boy
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Posted: Monday, January 26, 2009
by Joel Hendon
The tragic story behind David Phillip Vetter, born September 21, 1971, is heart rending for himself as well as his parents.
David Joseph Vetter Jr. and his wife, Carol Ann Vetter had a healthy daughter and a previous son, David Joseph Vetter III, who had died at age 7 months from a defective thymus gland. This gland is vital to the function of the immune system. The condition was named Severe Combined Immune Deficiency Syndrome (SCIDS). Doctors determined this was a genetic problem and any males born to the Vetters would have a 50% chance of having this same condition.
Baylor University enlisted the assistance of NASA in developing the sterile capsule and, later a room sized sterile "bubble" with means of sterilizing all foods and/or other items necessary to put inside the enclosure. NASA also built him a suit, similar to a space suit, which allowed him to come out of the enclosure for short periods of time. This however, took much time to sterilize and prepare for getting him into it and then back into the sterilized room. PBS has photos of the boy being suited and removed from the sterile room, however they are forbidden to be copied or used by anyone else, so you will have to go to their site to see them. There are twelve thumbnail prints which can be viewed larger by clicking on them: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/bubble/gallery/index.html
When Mrs. Vetter again became pregnant and they found that it was indeed a male fetus, and I presume they were able to determine the state of his thymus gland (although I have not read specifically where they determined it) the hospital, with NASA help, prepared the sterile capsule and it is reported they placed the baby inside this prepared area within10 seconds following his birth.
All seemed to go well and the baby was healthy and growing. Much research was done to try and find some solution but to no avail. This lifestyle, to be a permanent arrangement, became highly problematic. You can imagine that no child could remain in this type condition and grow up to be free from some type of mental disturbances. Here are two paragraphs taken from Wikipedia:
After many years, David's situation became unbearable. He was a full-grown boy and the small expectations for finding a cure were still the same 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 in 1970s dollars was spent on David's care.
In 1980, when David was around age 9, his new doctors, Ralph Feigin and William Shearer (the original three had all left for careers elsewhere), 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".
But in 1984, David's parents yielded to his doctors advice to allow them to perform an unmatched bone marrow transplant using marrow from his sister Katherine. They performed the operation by running tubes into the sterile bubble and administering it intravenously. The transplant procedure went well and it first appeared that he might eventually be able to come out of the bubble. However, in a few months, he became ill for the first time since birth, with diarrhea, elevated temperature, violent vomiting and internal bleeding. His condition became so bad and treatment required them to remove him from the bubble. However, he grew constantly worse and went into a coma. He died on February 22, 1984.
This life has been very controversial and all concerned have received criticism from various people and groups. Although a tragedy, I can feel for all of those. Especially the parents, who were as many others who simply wanted a son and were willing to sacrifice and try to beat the odds in order to have one. Those doctors involved desired to help the parents in this respect, but I suspect their motives were mainly those of hope that a cure for this type of error in nature might be found. The Vetters had already lost one son to the condition and certainly did not wish to lose the second one. One of David's original doctors had this to say in 1997, "At the time, we were encouraged by everything we knew. If people didn't take chances, none of us would be here. Columbus would have stayed in Spain and would have been selling tortillas, because he was warned he would sail off the edge of the earth".
A school in Montgomery county Texas was named David elementary in memory of the boy. His parents later divorced and his mother remarried. His father became mayor of Shenandoah, Texas.
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This Article has been viewed 8,315 times. (Not updated in real-time.)Top-level comments on this article: (5 total)
hi joel,this was so well written, it flowed, and was very interesting. i got wrapped up in it. i saw the movie about this boy, i believe. thanks for passing this story on,best regards,sue» left by Joel Hendon 4 years 116 days ago.
Thank you Susan for reading and commenting. The movie was somewhat over dramatized and not entirely accurate. I know John Travolta played the boy when he was much older than 12. But, never the less, it made a good movie.It was pitiful for the real boy and his parents. They say that, when he became very ill, his father told him of the risk of taking him from the bubble to treat him, to which he replied, "I'll risk anything Dad, to get to feeling better."
I really enjoyed reading your story. I remember him also. It made me think of the pain his parents must have felt. Thank you, Linda D» left by Joel Hendon 4 years 80 days ago.
Thanks for commenting Linda. Yes, I can remember him also and I recall that it was kindly appealing to me as a kid, but now I realize just how horrible it was.
» left by bee from Illinois 3 years 62 days ago.
how lon could david have lived otside his bubble?» left by Joel Hendon 3 years 62 days ago.
I doubt that anyone knows the answer to that. It was just that as he got older, it became increasingly difficult and expensive to continue it...plus, as any young man, he wanted to be able to get out and live a normal life. I can well understand that. Thanks for your comment.
» left by reader 1 year 125 days ago.
Have you read the book by Mary Ada Murphy about David and his life? I found it at bubbleboybook com. It's a fascinating read that was supposed to be published in 1995.Thanks for reading my article reader3. No I have not read the book. I have read lots about him and, in fact, I remember the little fellow's life. You see, I was 41 years old when he was born and I recall how the entire nation was concerned for him. It was heart breaking when he died yet, everyone knew he was better off. His life, as it was would have been increasingly difficult.
» left by Celia Huerta 1 year 5 days ago.
So glad to read this article about Davi'ds difficult life. He was a child. Just a child, a human who suffered his entire life trapped in a very small plastic bubble. As the numan being he was, he got mentally ill, yet, he remained aware and despite bouts of dispair, he didn't lose hope. David had to be strong and courageous in a way most humans don't have to be. I am so glad he had Mary Murphy by his side, validating his reality in a way no one else would. It was an extremely sad and lonely existance. First he was treated like an experimental animal while trapped in a bubble; second, most Drs, the media and even his parents chose to believe he was ok although trapped in a bubble. I can't believe anyone in their right mind would say he was a "happy child". Are encarcerated people content, happy or healthy while confined to a small space for prolonged periods of time? There are ton of research indicating to the contrary. How can anyone say a little child could ever develop normally under extreme isolation???? I hoope David has found freedom, I hope he is in a place now where he can thrive, be happy and have a decent existance. My heart goes out to him.
Thank you for reading and the nice comment Celia. You are right, it was a sad situation. I suppose thre were millions who admired the child and mourned his death.