When David Vetter was born by caesarian section at the Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston on September 21, 1971, doctors knew that his life was at risk. The danger was so severe, in fact, that the medics had only seconds to act.
The tiny baby was immediately transferred to a completely sterile environment. That was how the child who was to become known as “the boy in the bubble” entered what for him was an intensely hostile world. Because of the genetic condition he was born with, the sterile cocoon that he was moved to was the only safe place for him to be.
David’s parents, David Vetter, Jr. and Carol Vetter, had already experienced tragedy. Some 16 months before the birth of David, they’d had another son, their first, David Joseph Vetter, III. His short life had lasted only seven months before his death in November 1970. Moreover, the Vetters and their doctors knew that their second son had a 50-50 chance of being born with the very condition that had killed their first son.
That condition is called severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID). It’s a genetic disorder that virtually wipes out the body’s immune system. As a result, any infection could prove to be fatal. Germs and bacteria that the vast majority of us would be unaffected by can lead a SCID sufferer to die.
The type of SCID that killed the younger David is caused by a mutation in the X chromosome, and the condition only effects male children, although women can carry and pass on the defect. It was soon established that the younger David did in fact have SCID.
So when David was born, it was absolutely critical that he be protected from any chance of infection. Consequently, within seconds of his birth, he was transferred to an airtight plastic bubble. And once inside the bubble, David’s only physical contact with others was through a barrier of rubber gloves built into the bubble’s wall.
Even when David was baptized within the confines of his plastic bubble, the holy water used in the ceremony had to be sterilized. In fact, everything that went into his environment had to be treated, including toys, food and clothing. All items had to be sterilized for four hours in ethylene oxide heated to 140° F and then aired for up to seven days before they could be given to David.
In fact, the idea had been that this sealed-off, sterile plastic environment would only be a temporary measure. David’s parents had decided to have another child in the belief that there might be treatment that could cure his SCID.
The only treatment that was available at the time for treating SCID was a bone marrow transplant. And that’s where David’s sister Katherine came in. She was the Vetters’ first-born child, and the hope was that her blood group would mean that she’d be the ideal bone marrow donor.
However, Dr. Raphael Wilson of St Luke’s Hospital in Houston, Texas, had only successfully used this technique on mice. But he nonetheless had high hopes that a bone marrow transplant would succeed in strengthening David’s fatally weakened immune system.
But then came terrible news. Tests on the blood of David and his sister showed that Katherine was not a close enough match to make the transplant work. So now, far from being a temporary stop-gap, David’s plastic cocoon looked increasingly like a permanent home for the young boy, at least until medical science could come up with another way of mending his immune system.
David’s story subsequently began to spread across the world. To protect the privacy of the boy and his family, though, he was known only as David. And he soon became referred to as “the boy in the bubble,” a nickname often shortened to simply “bubble boy.”
During his earliest years, David lived exclusively in his bubble at the Texas Children’s Hospital. But his medical team eventually built a second sterile chamber for him at his parents’ house, which was about an hour’s drive north of the hospital in Houston. Now he could at least spend time with his sister and other children, albeit at one remove physically.
When David was four years old, though, he learnt how to poke holes in the plastic wall of his confined world. So it was now time to explain to him, as far as was possible with a four-year-old, what his situation was and how dangerous germs were to him. And as the years went by, it was inevitable that David’s understanding of his cruel circumstances would increase.
Yet even in these difficult circumstances, there was some degree of normality in David’s life. For instance, a special screening of Return of the Jedi was set up at a nearby cinema that David was able to attend. He also had school lessons and could watch TV.
Then, in 1977 NASA scientists built a miniaturized space suit for David, meaning that he could leave his bubble, although he still had to be attached by a pipe to a sterilized air supply. But David found the experience of leaving his bubble frightening, and in the end he only ever used the suit six times.
Inevitably, as he grew older, the stifling confinement that he had to endure began to take its toll. Interviewed in 2012 for a PBS documentary, Boy in the Bubble, David’s mother recalled, “But as he grew up things became more difficult. I think for us the summers were especially hard. I would notice David would spend a lot of time gazing outside. And he would see young boys on bicycles, or he’d see kids tumbling in the grass. I sensed a sadness to him.”
In 1983 – when David was 12 –there was a dramatic development. Scientists had now developed a bone marrow technique that did not require a precise match. David’s doctors consequently decided that they could go ahead with a transplant using bone marrow from his sister Katherine.
The signs initially seemed good following the transplant in October 1983, as David’s body didn’t reject his sister’s bone marrow. But then David became ill, and his condition progressively worsened. By February 1984 his condition was so bad that doctors decided to take him out of the bubble in order to treat him. It was the first time that David had been out of his protective cocoon. However, 15 days later, he died.
But in death, David was able to leave an invaluable legacy to medical science. An autopsy revealed that the cause of his death had been cancer. Doctors were subsequently able to determine that the cancer had come from an undetected virus contained in Katherine’s marrow. This was a major breakthrough, as it was the first time that scientists had been able to prove that cancer could be caused by a virus.