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The Boy in the Bubble
Teacher's Guide: Suggestions for Active Learning

Dr. Shearer talking with David, 1979 The film The Boy in the Bubble and this companion Web site offer insights into topics in American history including the pace and nature of twentieth century scientific research, searching for cures for diseases, doctors' and families' ethical responsibilities, the costs of medical care and the government's role in funding research, the space race and attendant technological advances, the sense of alienation and isolation possible in modern life, and more. You can use part or all of the film, or delve into the rich resources available on this Web site to learn more, either in a classroom or on your own.

The following activities are grouped into 4 categories: biography, ethics, society, and economics. You can also read a few helpful hints for completing the activities.


Biography | Ethics | Society | Economics

  1. David's life - and yours.
    One way to try to imagine what David's life was like is to think of the most memorable events in your own life so far, and then consider how, or even whether, David experienced these sorts of events. To do this, create a two-part timeline. On one side, list the important events in David's life. On the other side, list the important events in your own life (starting with your birth) and the events you remember most strongly, such as the celebration of a particular holiday, the birth of a younger brother or sister, or the day you met your best friend or moved into a new home.

    Now compare the two sides of the timeline. Also, read about daily life inside the bubble and about David's relationship with his sister Katherine. What kinds of events did you experience that David was unable to experience because of his condition? What kinds of events did he experience too, but differently? In what ways would you be a different person today if your childhood had been more like David's?

  2. What David wanted.
    In 1977, a NASA-designed mobile suit was made available to David to enable him to leave his bubble safely. However, he used it only a few times before refusing to get back into it. In 1984, in contrast, David left his bubble without a protective suit, despite the danger this posed. Why do you think David didn't make full use of the suit to be outside the bubble, but then left the bubble several years later even though he knew it could kill him?

    Explore this issue by writing two diary entries David might have written. The first should be for the day on which he decided not to use his suit any more; it should describe his feelings before trying the suit, what it felt like being in the suit and leaving the bubble, and why he didn't want to use it. The second entry should be for the day on which he decided to leave the bubble for good; it should explain his reasons for leaving the bubble and his hopes and fears regarding what might happen next. Have volunteers read their diary entries to the class.


Biography | Ethics | Society | Economics

  1. The right decision?
    Take the poll on whether David should have been removed from the bubble once doctors saw that his sister's bone marrow was not a match for him. Then divide the class into two groups: those who answered Yes, and those who answered No. Using information from the film, a discussion of the ethical issues involved in David's case, and their own personal values, each group should then come up with the most convincing argument it can make, in 100 words or fewer, for the other side.

    When both groups are done, have volunteers read the two opposing arguments aloud and then ask each student to reconsider his or her vote on the question. How many students changed their vote as a result of this activity? Why?

  2. The doctors' responsibility.
    Do you think the doctors who treated David acted correctly in the advice they gave David's parents? To consider this question, first read about the Hippocratic Oath, an ancient guide to doctors' responsibilities that still guides doctors today, and use the links in that essay to read the oath in its ancient and modern forms. As a class, discuss the main points of the oath and try to summarize them in a few sentences.

    Now, working in groups of two or three students each, examine three critical turning points in David's case:
    - when the Vetters first asked doctors whether they should try to have another child, after the death of their first son due to SCID;
    - when it became apparent after David's birth that his sister was not a perfect match for a bone-marrow transplant; and
    - when the doctors and David's parents were considering an experimental procedure to transplant his sister's bone marrow even though it was not a perfect match.

    For each of these turning points, discuss whether you think David's doctors followed the guidelines of the modern version of the Hippocratic Oath. When groups are finished, reassemble as a class and compare the groups' findings. Conclude the activity by having students vote on whether they approve or disapprove of the doctors' overall handling of David's case.


Biography | Ethics | Society | Economics

  1. The "bubble boy" in popular culture.
    David Vetter's life has been the subject of movies, television sitcoms, and pop songs. Imagining that you are David, listen to the Paul Simon song "The Boy in the Bubble" and watch either the "Seinfeld" episode "The Bubble Boy" or one of the two movies based on David's life. Based on what you know about David, do you think he would have seen these as accurate descriptions of his life, and do you think he would have enjoyed this sort of fame? Express your opinion in the form of letters from David to the producers of each of the works (movie, song, TV show) you reviewed.

  2. A time of medical miracles.
    As one of the interviewees in the film, Bruce Jennings, states, "medicine was on a roll" in the era when David was born, following a remarkable series of advances in medical technology and medical techniques during the twentieth century. Working together as a class, find as many examples as you can of medical advances between 1900 and 1970 and list them on a timeline. (Possibilities include the development of the artificial heart, polio vaccine, respirator or "iron lung," penicillin, pacemaker, chemotherapy, and birth control pill, and surgical advances such as the first coronary bypass, heart transplant, separation of conjoined twins, and kidney transplant.)

    Now review the timeline. How do you think these advances affected the advice that David's doctors gave to David's parents?


Biography | Ethics | Society | Economics

  1. The cost of David's care.
    The cost of caring for David was estimated at $1.3 million. What do you think of the argument that this money could have benefited many more children if it had been spent differently?

    Working with a partner, use an inflation calculator such as the one on the NASA Web site to find out what amount of money today would be equivalent to $1.3 million in 1983. Then come up at least two ways in which this amount of money could be spent to benefit children. For example, how many children could be provided with vaccinations, textbooks, clothes, health coverage, or food? Compare your findings with those of the other groups by listing all of the possible uses of the money on the board.

    Now discuss as a class whether you think caring for David was the best use of this money. Should the money have been distributed in ways that helped the largest number of people, or the people in greatest need, or the people who are most likely to benefit, or on some other basis? Also consider this question: if David had not been born with SCID, do you think the money that went toward his care would instead have been spent to help other children? Why or why not?

  2. Searching for cures.
    The federal government provides significant funding each year for research into diseases. Review this table from the National Institutes of Health showing how this funding has been allocated over the past few years. Then select two or more of the items in the table to compare or contrast, and create a line graph or bar graph showing changes in funding for these diseases over time. (Be sure to create a title for your graph that explains what data it shows.) Beneath the graph, write a brief paragraph explaining why you chose these items to compare or contrast, what the graph shows about funding in these two areas, and why you found this information interesting.

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