November 4, 2014

David Phillip Vetter

   David Vetter, also known as the "Boy in the Plastic Bubble" was a prominent sufferer of severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID), a hereditary disease which dramatically weakens the immune system. His parents, David Joseph and Carol Ann Vetter, were advised by physicians that any male children they might conceive would have a 50% chance of inheriting the disease after their first son, David, was also born with SCID and died at 7 months of age. They  At the time, the only management available for children born with SCID was isolation in a sterile environment until a successful bone marrow transplant could be performed. The Vetters, who already had a daughter, Katherine, decided to proceed with another pregnancy. Their third child, David Phillip, was born on September 21, 1971.

   A special sterilized cocoon bed was prepared for David at his birth. Immediately after being removed from his mother's womb, he entered the plastic germ-free environment that would be his home for most of his life. He was baptized a Roman Catholic with sterilized holy water once he had entered the bubble. Initial plans to proceed with a bone marrow transplant came to a halt after it was determined that the prospective donor, his sister, Katherine, was not a match. Water, air, food, diapers and clothes were sterilized before entering the chamber. After being placed in the sterile chamber, David was touched only through special plastic gloves attached to the walls of the chamber. The chamber was kept inflated by air compressors that were very loud, making communications with the boy very difficult. His parents and medical team sought to provide him as normal a life as possible, including a formal education, and a television and playroom inside the sterile chamber. About three years after David's birth, the treatment team built an additional sterile chamber in his parents' home in Conroe, Texas, and a transport chamber so that he could spend periods of two to three weeks at home, where he could have his sister and friends for company.

   When he was four years old, he discovered that he could poke holes in his bubble using a butterfly syringe that was left inside the chamber by mistake. At this point, the treatment team explained to him what germs were and how they affected his condition. As he grew older, he became aware of the world outside his chamber, and expressed an interest in participating in what he could see outside the windows of the hospital and via television. In 1977, researchers from NASA used their experience with the fabrication of space suits to develop a special suit that would allow him to get out of his bubble and walk in the outside world. The suit was connected to his bubble via an eight-foot long cloth tube and although cumbersome, it allowed him to venture outside without serious risk of contamination. Vetter was initially resistant to the suit, and although he later became more comfortable wearing it, he used it only seven times. He outgrew the suit and never used the replacement one provided for him by NASA.

   In 1984, David received a bone marrow transplant from his sister, Katherine, and, while his body didn't reject the transplant, he became ill with infectious mononucleosis after a few months. He died fifteen days later on February 22, 1984, from Burkitt's lymphoma at age 12. The autopsy revealed that Katherine's bone marrow contained traces of a dormant virus, Epstein-Barr, which had been undetectable in the pre-transplant screening. He was buried at Conroe Memorial Park, Conroe, Montgomery County, Texas on February 25, 1984. His parents later divorced. His father went on to become the mayor of Shenandoah, Texas. His mother married a magazine reporter who had written about her son. Vetter's psychologist, Mary Murphy, wrote a book about Vetter's case that was to be published in 1995; however, its publication was blocked by his parents. An elementary school which opened in 1990 in The Woodlands in unincorporated Montgomery County, Texas, was named David Elementary after him.

30° 17.772, -095° 25.635

Section 12
Conroe Memorial Park

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