David Phillip Vetter (September 21, 1971 – February 22, 1984) was a boy from Shenandoah, Texas, United States who suffered from a rare genetic disease now known as severe combined immune deficiency syndrome (SCID). Forced to live in a sterile environment, he became popular with the media as the boy in the plastic bubble. He spent most of his life at Texas Children’s Hospital, but in 1981, David was discharged to his parents’ full-time care. He died of cancer in 1984 after an unmatched bone marrow transplant from his sister.
David’s parents, David Joseph Vetter Jr. and Carol Ann Vetter, had one daughter, Katherine; their first son, named David Joseph Vetter III, died seven months after birth. Doctors said that the baby boy had been born with a defective thymus, a gland which is important in the functioning of the immune system, due to a genetic condition, SCID. Each further son the couple might conceive would have a 50% chance of inheriting the same condition.
Germ-free research and ‘boy in the plastic bubble’
Three doctors from Baylor College of Medicine — John Montgomery, Mary Ann South and Raphael Wilson — told the Vetters that if they had another child with SCID, the child could be placed in a sterile isolator until a bone marrow transplant could be performed, using the older sister, Katherine, as a donor. The couple were anxious to have another child to carry on the family name. So, believing that after a short treatment their child could live a normal life, they decided to go through another pregnancy. However, after the birth of David, it was discovered that Katherine was not a match, thus removing the possibility of the transplant. There was no private or public discussion of what would happen if no cure was found, or how long the prospective child would remain in the bubble.
The Rev. Raymond Lawrence, the chaplain of the hospital at that time and now Director of Pastoral Care of Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, 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 says that the original three doctors encouraged David’s parents to conceive David just so that they could have a test subject for their studies, a charge which is denied by the three involved doctors.
Touched – Tribute to David Vetter