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|Born||David Phillip Vetter
September 21, 1971
Houston, Texas, U.S.
|Died||February 22, 1984
Dobbin, Texas, U.S.
|Cause of death||Lymphoma; complications from SCID|
David Phillip Vetter (September 21, 1971 – February 22, 1984) was a prominent sufferer of severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID), a hereditary disease which dramatically weakens the immune system. Individuals born with SCID are abnormally susceptible to infections, and exposure to pathogens can be fatal. Vetter was referred to as "David, the bubble boy" by the media. Vetter's surname was not revealed to the general public until 10 years after his death in order to preserve his family's privacy.
In his first years of 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 Dobbin, Texas. He died in 1984, at the age of 12.
Family and birth
Vetter's parents were David Joseph Vetter, Jr. and Carol Ann Vetter. Their first son, David Joseph Vetter III, was also born with SCID and died at 7 months of age. Vetter's parents were advised by physicians that any future male children they might conceive would have a 50% chance of inheriting the disease. At the time, the only management available for children born with SCID was isolation in a sterile environment until a successful bone marrow transplant could be 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 Vetter at his birth. Immediately after being removed from his mother's womb, Vetter entered the plastic germ-free environment that would be his home for most of his life. Vetter was baptized a Roman Catholic with sterilized holy water once he had entered the bubble. Initial plans to proceed with a bone marrow transplant came to a halt after it was determined that the prospective donor, Vetter'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, Vetter 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, which included Dr. John Montgomery, 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 Vetter's birth, the treatment team built an additional sterile chamber in his parents' home in Conroe, Texas, and a transport chamber so that Vetter could spend periods of two to three weeks at home. Vetter 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 theater so that Vetter could attend the movie in his transport chamber.
When Vetter 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 to him what germs were and how they affected his condition. 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 suit was connected to his bubble via an eight-foot (2.5 m) long cloth tube and although cumbersome, it allowed him to venture outside without serious risk of contamination. Vetter was initially resistant to the suit, and although he later became more comfortable wearing it, he used it only seven times. He outgrew the suit and never used the replacement one provided for him by NASA.
Psychological and ethical aspects
During Vetter's life, the only options for children born with SCID were either to be sequestered in a sterile environment or else to quickly die from infection. 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 Vetter'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 Vetter could become unpredictable and uncontrollable. Vetter later received a bone marrow transplant from his sister, Katherine. While his body didn't reject the transplant, he became ill with infectious mononucleosis after a few months. 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.
He was buried at Conroe Memorial Park, Conroe, Montgomery County, Texas.
Vetter's parents later divorced. His father went on to become the mayor of Shenandoah, Texas. His mother married a magazine reporter who had written about her son. Vetter's psychologist, Mary Murphy, wrote a book about Vetter's case that was to be published in 1995; however, its publication was blocked by his parents.
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- Roane, Kit (December 6, 2015). "The Boy in the Bubble". Retro Report. The New York Times.