Do you remember the “boy in the bubble?”
David Phillip Vetter was born in Houston, Texas on September 21, 1971. His story was often in the news throughout the 1970s for he was born with SCID, Severe Combined Immune Deficiency (pronounced “skid”) and was placed inside the first of many sealed environments — “bubbles” — within minutes of his birth.
This story captivated me throughout the 1970s until he died in 1984 and not just for the human interest it held. In the spring of 1973, I too had a newborn named David. I followed, both fascinated and horrified, this little “boy in the bubble.” It continues to captivate me.
Why am I talking about David today? It was on February 7 (1984) that this then-twelve-year-old boy touched his mother for the first time. He died two weeks later of lymphoma caused by an unexpected virus in the blood of his bone marrow donor.
The story of David’s life garnered worldwide attention, but it’s been The Houston Chronicle that continues to cover the story as more and more children born with SCID get a happier ending because of the advances made possible from David Vetter’s short life.
His life was not without controversy.
As you know, I highlight stories that show the power of culture on individuals, generally without our awareness. And David’s story is such a one. He was born into a culture of medical optimism. Houston, Texas had seen the first separation of conjoined twins (1964), the first heart transplant (1968), and the first successful treatment of pediatric respiratory failure with an at home mechanical ventilator.
With David, they fully expected to see the first successful treatment of SCID. And they expected it fairly quickly, at first.
At best, this theory goes, he was the innocent victim of an unwarranted optimism, a pervasive sense of hope that, after the reality set in, trapped him in an untenable situation. At worst, he was the victim of medical hubris, “a classic example of doctors promising more than medicine could deliver?” as one person put it in this documentary from American Experience, Biography. (It’s 55 minutes long)
Or, was he the fortunate recipient of technological triumphs that gave his family twelve years with him that they’d otherwise not have had?
That is the verdict in The Story of David, from the Immune Deficiency Foundation.
SCID afflicts between 40 to 80 babies every year and is still fatal if left untreated. But today, there is hope through bone marrow transplants or stem cell transplants, if diagnosed within the first three months, thanks to the time doctors had with David. And from David’s death, we’ve learned of the connection between viruses and cancer, a causal relationship that had produced numerous breakthroughs since.
Want more information? Try these links:
David’s epitaph reads: “He never touched the world. But the world was touched by him.” He would have turned 47 later this year.
How about you? How do you remember David Vetter?
REMINDER: I hope you’ll check into the We Love Memoirs Facebook group this Sunday when I’ll be talking about my books, my experiences in the Peace Corps, the process of writing, the craft of memoir writing specifically, and any other questions the members might toss at me. Who knows, if someone asks me about Elton John I may repeat the story of how I nearly married the man so long ago. To join (even for the day) just find the image for it in the sidebar there to the right, then scroll up a bit.