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David Phillip Vetter, the "Bubble Boy," left a deep mark on a world he visited only briefly. The bubble that kept him safe from the germs that could ravage his immunodeficient body proved to be a striking image, repeated in various forms in popular culture. More significantly, David's life contributed to scientific understandings and treatments of severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID), the disease that kept him in the bubble.
In 1976 ABC televised a John Travolta made-for-television drama called The Boy in the Plastic Bubble. Travolta's character, Tod Lubitch, was a composite of David and Ted DeVita, a Washington, D.C., area teenager with a similarly compromised immune system. David had a chance to see the movie on videotape and thought "Tod's" use of his spacesuit to be ridiculously unsterile. (Not long after the movie aired, NASA contacted the Vetters about a possible spacesuit; his mother suspected they may have gotten the idea for the suit from the movie.) At the end of the film, Tod leaves his bubble, presumably to die.
Attempts at Humor
Others cast the difficulties of the bubble as fodder for comedy. National Lampoon magazine parodied the "bubble family." A recurring character on television's Seinfeld emphasized the frustration born of helplessness, and Jake Gyllenhaal starred in Bubble Boy (2001), purportedly a satire of the Travolta movie.
The lyrics to a Paul Simon song from the album Graceland (1986) pair the "boy in the bubble" of the song title with "the baby with the baboon heart"-- a reference to a 1984 heart transplant involving an infant known in the press as Baby Fae. The song invokes the speed of modern technological progress, albeit with some misgivings.
Sculptures and Installations
Some modern artists have also found inspiration in David's life. In 1990 a contemporary artist named Ronald Jones followed Simon's lead in an exhibition of sculptures that included bronze casts of a baboon heart and of a sculpture made by David Vetter. In January 2003 Christian Holstad exhibited an inflatable bubble room in an art gallery in an installation called Life is a Gift, a direct reference to David's situation and as a comment on isolation as a human condition.
While artists found inspiration in the emotional and complex circumstances of David's life, scientists and doctors have capitalized on David's experience to develop treatments for other children without robust immune systems. Medicine has made two major scientific advances in understanding the nature of cancer and the use of gene therapy.
Because his environment was so controlled, David's doctors were able to link the cancerous lymphoma that killed him to the Epstein-Barr virus that was present in Katherine's donated bone marrow. Epstein-Barr had been suspected to lead to cancer in heart transplant patients, and David's death confirmed this. "We can now without any doubt describe the very clear progression from infection to the development of cancer," said William Shearer, David's doctor.
In 1993 analysis of blood samples taken from David located the exact gene where his congenital disease was located. The discovery was a breakthrough for scientists trying to understand how different parts of the immune system communicate with one another, and would lead to new therapies for children afflicted with SCID.
New Therapies for SCID
Since David's death, at least two new therapies have been given to children born with SCID. In one procedure, their blood is drawn, the white blood cells (which are the basis of the immune system) are altered with repaired genes, and then the cells are re-injected into the patient. Unfortunately, the white blood cells only survive for a few months and the annual cost of this treatment is about $100,000.
Stem Cell Therapy
The second procedure involves stem cells. Stem cells from the umbilical cords of infants born with SCID are altered to repair the gene that carries the disease. The altered cells are then reintroduced into the patient. This process was historic as the first attempt to cure a disease through gene therapy, rather than just mask the symptoms of a disease. Although every patient who received this therapy was cured of SCID, gene therapy trials were suspended after a percentage of the patients contracted a form of leukemia (French scientists reported that three of 10 treated patients developed leukemia).
A Cause and a Center
David's life and death inspired many people to send condolences to his family (often addressed simply: David's Family, Houston) and donations to Texas Children's Hospital. An annual David's Dream Run has been held near his home since 1994, raising nearly $200,000 in its first decade for the David Center of Texas Children's Hospital, dedicated to treating congenital immunodeficiencies.
A School and an Award
In 1990 the David Elementary school was dedicated in The Woodlands, TX. In addition to photographs and news clippings of David Vetter, the courtyard features an inlay of bricks representing the size of David's first bubble. Each year, Carol Ann Vetter, David's mother, presents the "Hero Award" to a fourth grader at the school who demonstrates the strength of character that David had.
Artifacts from David's life were given to the Smithsonian Institute, but some have since been requested by the family for inclusion in a local museum in the city of Shenandoah, Texas, where David lived.