September 21, 1971|
Houston, Texas, U.S.
|Died||February 22, 1984
Montgomery County, Texas, U.S.
|Cause of death||Lymphoma; complications from SCID|
David Phillip Vetter (September 21, 1971 – February 22, 1984) became famous for living in a sterile environment. He was born with severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID), a disorder that causes the immune system to not work. Because of this, exposure to any germs could prove fatal. He was called "David, the bubble boy" by the news media. Although they knew his last name, they didn't use it in order to give David and his family privacy. His last name was not revealed to the general public until 10 years after his death.
In his first years of his life he lived mostly at Texas Children's Hospital in Houston, Texas. As he grew older, he lived increasingly at home with his parents and older sister Katherine in Shenandoah, Texas. He died in 1984, at the age of 12.
After the death of their first son, David Joseph Vetter III, seven months after birth, due to SCID, parents David Joseph Vetter, Jr. and Carol Ann Vetter were advised by physicians that any male children they might conceive would have a 50% chance of inheriting the disease. At the time, the only treatment plan for children born with this condition was isolation in a sterile environment until a bone marrow donor was identified and a successful bone marrow transplant performed. The Vetters, who already had a daughter, decided to proceed with another pregnancy. Their third child, David Phillip Vetter, was born September 21, 1971.
A special sterilized cocoon bed was prepared for David at his birth. Less than ten 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. David was baptized a Roman Catholic with sterilized holy water once he had entered the bubble. Plans to proceed with a bone marrow transplant came to a halt after it was determined that the prospective donor, David's sister, Katherine, was not a match.
Life in the bubble 
Water, air, food, diapers, and clothes were sterilized before entering the sterile chamber. Items were 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 being placed in the sterile chamber.
After being placed in the sterile chamber, David was touched only through special plastic gloves attached to the walls of the chamber. The chamber was kept inflated by air compressors that were very loud, making communications with the boy very difficult. His parents and medical team sought to provide him as normal a life as possible, including a formal education, and a television and playroom inside the sterile chamber. About three years after David's birth, the treatment team built an additional sterile chamber in his parents' home in Conroe, Texas, and a transport chamber so that David could spend two- to three-week periods at home. David had his sister and friends for company while at home. A friend arranged for a special showing of Return of the Jedi at a local movie theater that David attended in his transport chamber.
When David was four years old, he discovered that he could poke holes in his bubble using a butterfly syringe that was left inside the chamber by mistake. At this point, the treatment team explained germs and David's condition to him. As he grew older, he became aware of the world outside his chamber, and expressed an interest in participating in what he could see outside the windows of the hospital and via television.
In 1977, researchers from NASA used their experience with the fabrication of space suits to develop a special suit that would allow Vetter to get out of his bubble and walk in the outside world. The cumbersome suit was connected to his bubble via an eight-foot (2.5 m) long cloth tube so that he could venture outside without serious risk of contamination. David was initially resistant to the suit, and though he later became more comfortable with the suit, he used it only seven times before outgrowing it, and never used the replacement suit provided for him by NASA.
Psychological and ethical aspects 
At the time of David's case, once a child was born with SCID, he would either be moved into a sterile environment, or quickly die from infection.
David came to be considered psychologically unstable due to the lack of human contact and his increasing realization of his limited prospects for a normal life. As a young child, he presented a painstakingly polite facade, but as he grew older, he appeared to become increasingly angry and depressed. He was extremely anxious about germs, and would experience repeated nightmares about the "King of Germs".
The Rev. Raymond Lawrence, the chaplain of Texas Children's Hospital at that time, said of the situation: "The great scandal of the Bubble Boy was that he was conceived for the bubble. The team that did this didn't think through this very well. They didn't consider what would happen if they didn't find an immediate cure. They operated on the assumption that you could live to be 80 years old in a bubble, and that would be unfortunate but okay." Lawrence said that the original three doctors encouraged David's parents to conceive David so that they could have a test subject for studies, a charge which is denied by the three involved doctors.
The case raised numerous ethical questions, including whether parents with the genetic traits producing a 50% chance of SCID should have children, and whether the knowledge produced by such research justified allowing or encouraging parents to have children subject to this risk.
Approximately $1.3 million was spent on David's care, but scientific study failed to produce a true "cure" and no donor match had been identified. Physicians expressed concern that as a teenager David could become unpredictable and uncontrollable. Those concerns and advances in unmatched bone marrow operations led the medical team to recommend, and the family to decide to attempt, an unmatched bone marrow transplant from his sister Katherine through intravenous lines running into the bubble. The transplant operation went well, and produced hopes that he would be able to leave the chamber. A few months later, however, David became ill, for the first time in his life, with diarrhea, fever, severe vomiting and intestinal bleeding. The symptoms were so severe that he had to be taken out of the chamber for treatment.
He died 15 days later on February 22, 1984, from Burkitt's lymphoma at age 12. The autopsy revealed that the donor (Katherine's) bone marrow contained traces of a dormant virus, Epstein-Barr, which had been undetectable in the pre-transplant screening. Once transplanted, the virus spread and produced hundreds of cancerous tumors.
An elementary school which opened in 1990 in The Woodlands in unincorporated Montgomery County, Texas, was named David Elementary after Vetter.
David's parents later divorced. His father was later elected mayor of Shenandoah, Texas. His mother married a People magazine reporter who had written about her son.
David's psychologist, Mary Murphy, wrote a book about David's case that was to be published in 1995; however, its publication was blocked by David's parents. Murphy is now deceased, but the contents of her book are available.
See also