The Boy Who Lived His Entire Life Inside A Plastic Bubble – The Boy In The Bubble

David Vetter is probably the most famous child in Texas around 1970-1980. The boy who also known as “The Bubble Boy.” The reason for that was because he lived. He lived with a critical condition known as severe combined immunodeficiency, or SCID. Basically what it does is, it disables the patient’s immune system. Yes, he didn’t have the immunity to fight even the most common germs in the air. So how he lived? Inside a PVC bubble that specially designed for him by NASA.

Because David’s elder brother died at 7 months old with the same genetic syndrome, doctors were aware it could happen again. Once they found out David’s gender, they also found that he is going to be born with SCID. Only male babies were affected by this. Though females can be carriers. Since his parents asked doctors to make him live, they started doing everything they can to save the baby. For starters they immediately put the baby in isolation once he was born in Sept. 21, 1971.

[Putting baby David into the isolator]

David’s first isolator was a 3-by-6-feet PVC bubble. It was literally a ‘baby bubble.’ But as he grew up the bubble had to expand too. Later it included four sections including a playroom that size of 10-by-8-feet.

[Three-year-old David standing in his supply isolator]

Everything he had inside his bubble had to be sterilized. Even food. His father made weekly trips to TCH to pick up sterilized items, like books, toys, clothes kind of stuff. Everything was sealed inside cylinders and delivered to David through a transport tunnel in his ‘bubble.’ As for food, he could only eat jarred baby food since they were already sterile and sealed.

Despite him being isolated, his family didn’t let him feel left out. "I would eat with him every night on a hospital tray," Katherine Vetter, his elder sister said. "We'd watch football games, play Atari." When she said “eat with him” of course they were separated by the ‘bubble.’

Here’s a fun story. Since David can’t touch any pet they had Katherine would hold the pet up so that David could experience some sense of it. At one point they had a bird named Tweetie. When Katherine held the cage up for David, he used his gloved hands to open the cage door freeing the bird. Sending his sister running after the bird. Can you understand why he did that?

[David at age 12 with his mother, Carol Ann]

[Carol Ann holds Katherine while baby David is in the background]

In 1977, David at age six, NASA made a space suite for him. Giving him more freedom to roam outside his bubble. He only used it few times before it expired. He never got used to it anyway.

[David walking outside with his sister in his space suit]

Dr. William Shearer was David’s doctor. He was also a professor of pediatrics and immunology for Baylor College of Medicine. He talks about David like this, "David was a wonderful patient who was so well-educated because he dealt with professionals all his life." And he was right. When he was two, his vocabulary was pretty different from other kids of his age. How many toddlers, after all, have occasion to use words like 'isolator' and 'transfer'? His IQ was measured at 126 when he was just three years old.

Dr. Shearer realized that for David to live a normal life he would eventually have to step out of his bubble. That is when they found out about experimental bone marrow transplanting. "The physical location and the psychological nature; there was a need for him to come out for sure."  Dr. Shearer said further.

[Four-year-old David with Dr. Wilson]

It turned out his sister’s blood was the best match and it wasn’t a perfect fit either. But in late 1983 doctors told about new bone marrow transplant technique that could use less than perfect matches. They could use Katherine’s bone marrows.

Katherine agreed. Surgery had no risk. It’s either success, if so David could come out of the bubble. If it fails, there are no serious side effects. They would be back in square one.

Unfortunately, they weren’t that lucky. The transplant succeeds alright. After few days David started showing illness. The cause for that was an undetected Epstein-Barr virus in Katherine’s marrow. And the virus caused a lymph cancer. That’s the first time doctors found out that virus can cause cancers.

David came out of his bubble on February 7, 1984. Into a disinfected room where his family were, dressed in sterile clothes. They could touch him. David smiled at the tickling sensation he felt. “Stop it” he cried. Later Katherine said that his voice sound different outside the bubble. Carol Ann, David’s mother, had thought his hair was thicker than she imagined.

As his friend psychologist Mary Murphy was leaving, on February 22, David said "Remember, I love you, Mary. Goodbye." Instead of his usual "I'll see you later." Before he went to sleep that day he spoke to his mother, Carol Ann, and said "I love you all too." As his last words to his mother.

David’s fate had never brought upon any child after him thanks to the knowledge he gave and will never happen again. According to doctors there have never been a single immune system studied well as David’s. Every newborn in Texas now screened for SCID. It’s almost 100 percent curable if did the proper treatments during the first three months of baby. There's no denying the advances that David's experience brought to the field. His legacy will continue to save lives as long as human kind survives.

[Nine-year-old David with hand in isolator glove, 1980]

[Carol Ann, David Sr., Katherine and infant David]

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