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The Boy in the Bubble
Timeline: David Vetter's Life, and Treatments for Immunodeficiency

1968 - 1973 | 1975 - 2001  


Photo of Dr. John Montgomery February: Thirty staff members of Texas Children's Hospital gather to discuss the ethics of raising David, now 3-1/2 years old, in the isolator bubble. Although many doubts and anxieties are raised, when Dr. John Montgomery asks point blank whether their treatment of David was unethical, he is told that their work has indeed been ethical. Not long afterward, Montgomery leaves Texas for another job.


Spring: The only person remaining from the original team, Raphael Wilson, suffers a heart attack. Five and a half year old David reacts strongly, probably afraid of what will happen when his caretakers are gone. Not long after recovering, Wilson takes a teaching job at the University of Portland (Oregon), where he will eventually become president. He will continue to visit David regularly.

The ABC television network airs Boy in the Plastic Bubble, starring John Travolta as a teenager without a functioning immune system. When David eventually sees the film, he will criticize the depiction of the character's space suit.

September 21: In time for David's fifth birthday, Elaine Potts, who supervises David's diet, discovers a company that makes a canned, egg-free cake. His favorite flavor is chocolate.


David in NASA spacesuit with his Dad and Dr. South July: David leaves the isolator in a NASA-constructed space suit. The protective system allows the boy to walk around the hospital while maintaining a sterile environment. Later, David will wear the suit to explore his home. Soon, however, he has a growth spurt and outgrows the suit.


A psychiatric report indicates that David suffers from severe mood swings, has reverted to thumb sucking and obsessive rocking, and will probably encounter difficulties in his impending adolescence. Furthermore, discussions with leading immunologists worldwide suggest that a cure will not be available for another ten years. Not long after, Dr. Ralph Feigin suggests removing David from the bubble. The Vetters consult with the original trio of doctors -- South, Montgomery and Wilson -- and request that David remain in the isolator.


David celebrates his First Communion with sterilized communion wafers.


December: David, growing ever more thoughtful at age 11, asks to see the stars. His family takes him out in his transport bubble and they watch the sky for 20 minutes before heading back inside.


David lounging in transport isolator at home The film Return of the Jedi opens in theaters. Shawn Murphy, David's neighbor and friend, had introduced David to the Star Wars films through comic books, toys and eventually the videos when they were available. Shawn and the local theater manager arrange a private showing of the latest Star Wars film for David and his family.

Summer: Dr. William Shearer tells the Vetters about a new procedure that will allow bone marrow transfusions from donors who are not perfectly matched. The Vetters discuss the new therapy with both their children and agree to try it.

October 21: A month after David's 12th birthday, his sister Katherine flies to Boston to have her bone marrow extracted and treated. Dr. William Shearer then flies back to Houston with the marrow and David assists him in injecting the donation into his own blood. If the marrow takes hold, his immune system will be given a chance to generate itself.


David prepares for bone marrow transplant February 7: David had never been sick before, but now, vomiting and suffering from diarrhea, can no longer be adequately treated from inside the bubble. He agrees to let himself out of the isolator to receive medical treatment. His mother runs her gloved fingers through his hair for the first time.

February 22: Four months after receiving the blood marrow transfusion from his sister, David Vetter dies from lymphoma, a cancer later determined to have been introduced into his system by the Epstein-Barr virus which was not screened from the donation.

Letters of condolence and monetary donations for Texas Children's Hospital come in from all over the world. The hospital establishes The David Fund and The David Center to continue research in pediatric immunology.


October/November: People magazine publishes a two-part cover story on David, co-written by Carol Ann Vetter. At the same time, the Journal of the American Medical Association publishes a commentary by Reverend Raymond Lawrence questioning the ethics of David's treatment, as well as an editorial response defending the medical practice.


The David Elementary School in Woodlands, Texas, opens. At the dedication, Carol Ann says the school "is an answering of our prayers that [David's] spirit continues on Earth."


Using blood samples taken from David and other patients, scientists isolate the gene that carries SCID. David's greatest legacy is in medicine. By altering this gene in the stem cells of babies born with SCID, doctors are able to cure the disease (although some of the treated patients develop leukemia as a side effect of their cure).


Bubble Boy, starring Jake Gyllenhaal, opens to bad reviews and criticism from children who suffer from immunodeficiencies and their doctors and families.

1968 - 1973 | 1975 - 2001  

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The Boy in the Bubble American Experience