David Vetter lived his life in a polyvinyl chloride chamber. Vetter is pictured here with his mother, Carol Ann Demaret.[/caption]
David Vetter, the "Bubble Boy," could not directly touch his family's pets in their Shenandoah home—the bacteria they carried were far too deadly. Instead, his sister Katherine Vetter would often hold them up—a bunny, a dog—so that David could experience some sense of normalcy from inside his sterilized space. At one point, the Vetter family kept a bird named Tweetie in a small birdcage. Katherine would hold the cage up to David, and the young boy who lived his life in a bubble would open the small cage door with his gloved hands, freeing the bird and sending his sister running after it.
David was born with severe combined immunodeficiency, or SCID. The syndrome is genetic, and those born with it have a deficient immune system. David's younger brother, David Joseph, named after their father, David Joseph Vetter, was born in 1970 with SCID and died at 7 months old. David Joseph Jr.'s passing served as a warning for David Phillips, born Sept. 21, 1971.
"They found out that David Phillips was going to be born with [SCID] and placed him immediately in isolation," Katherine said.
David's first sterile isolator, a 3-foot-by-6-foot bubble lined with polyvinyl chloride, was designed to accommodate him as a baby when he first came home from the Texas Children's Hospital. As David grew older, the bubble grew in size and included four sections, the largest of which was a 10-foot-by-8-foot playroom. Only David was allowed inside the sterile environment.
Everything David needed or wanted had to first be sterilized before he could touch it. Katherine said their father would make weekly trips to TCH to pick up the sterilized items, such as books, toys or clothes, which were encased in cylinders. The items would be delivered to David through his transport tunnel. He would get everything he needed this way.
However, Katherine said David never requested shoes.
"He didn't like to wear shoes because he didn't have to," Katherine said. "But he always wore socks. He said that one day he'd like to walk barefoot on grass and drink a Coke."
David's food needed to be sterilized, too. He could only eat jarred baby food, which came already sterile and in a sealed jar.
When David's mother, Carol Ann, would cook meals for the rest of the family, Katherine said her mom would often worry he could smell the food emanating from the kitchen. Yet, David never mentioned it.
Despite the isolation chamber that prevented David from direct physical contact with people, his family found ways to make emotional connections. Mealtimes, for instance, were often shared between brother and sister.
"I would eat with him every night [with my food] on a hospital tray," Katherine said. "We'd watch football games, play Atari."
Katherine said David's favorite Atari game was Pong, but it was "Star Wars" that he was interested in most. Hasbro, the toy manufacturer who makes "Star Wars" toys, sent David one of every "Star Wars" action figure it produced, all safely sterilized.
In 1977, David was fitted with a special spacesuit that allowed him to walk outside of the bubble environment. The process of putting the suit on was arduous, but David was able to venture out a few times.
David also had a transport bubble, which was equipped with wheels. Katherine said David was able to see a Fourth of July parade and a fire engine. Getting David outside of his normal environment, however, was no easy task, and using the transport bubble for trips outside was reserved for special occasions, such as a one-time trip to the movie theater.
David owned the videotape of the first "Star Wars" film, which he could watch on the TV set in his playroom.
"David loved it and would watch it over and over again," Carol Ann said.
She said when the sequel, "The Empire Strikes Back," was released in theaters in 1980, David wanted to see that, too.
A family friend arranged with a Shenandoah movie theater manager for them to see the movie. The manager opened the theater for a private showing for the Vetter family.
"He loved 'Star Wars,'" Carol Ann said. "The only movie he ever saw [in the theater] was 'The Empire Strikes Back.'"
In 1983, about a year before David died, he said he wanted to go outside to witness a lunar eclipse. Carol Ann said David pleaded with her to disconnect his transport bubble and roll him to the front of the walkway so he could witness the eclipse.
"I said 'No, I can't do that, David. I can't be responsible by myself for disconnecting your bubble,'" Carol Ann said. "So when Katherine got home from school, he pressed her."
David got his way.
"Katherine and I disconnected his transport bubble from his playroom and sealed it off. We were outside for about 10 to 15 minutes," Carol Ann said. "I'm so glad we did that because that meant a lot to David."
Dr. William Shearer, David's doctor and professor of pediatrics and immunology for Baylor College of Medicine, said, "David was a wonderful patient who was so well-educated because he dealt with professionals all his life."
Yet, David had a reserved side and was reluctant with whom he became close, Shearer said.
"[David] had to get used to you before you entered his inner circle," he said. "It took a while before David and I became friends, but when we did it was a pleasure to work with him. It was a good relationship."
Shearer understood that for David to lead a normal life, he would eventually need to be removed from his bubble.
"It was impossible for him to stay inside the bubble, so that's when he was transplanted," Shearer said. "The physical location and the psychological nature—there was a need for him to come out for sure."
To get him out of the bubble, David needed to undergo a bone marrow transplant. But at the age of 12, David died from complications from the procedure on Feb. 22, 1984.
Despite the efforts by doctors to provide him with an unrestrained lifestyle, Katherine said David remained resigned to his constraints.
"He never tried to get out of the bubble," Katherine said. "He could have gotten out any time he wanted."
The David Clinic
The upcoming David Clinic, named after David Phillips Vetter, at Texas Children's Hospital The Woodlands will offer care for children with abnormalities of their immune systems.
All babies born in the state of Texas are now screened for SCID. The disease is nearly 100 percent curable in infants who receive the diagnosis and care within the first three months of life. The David Clinic provides care to children of The Woodlands community who are suspected of having SCID.
Source: Texas Children's Hospital
David Dream Run
David Elementary School hosts the David Dream Run fundraiser walk and run. All of the money raised benefits Texas Children's Hospital. The event has raised more than $350,000 in 20 years.
Woodforest Bank Stadium, 19115 David Memorial Drive, Shenandoah, May 9, 8 a.m.