Health & Science

The Legacy Of The ‘Boy In The Bubble,’ One Of Houston’s Most Famous Patients

A conversation about David Vetter between his mother, Carol Ann Demaret, and his pediatric immunologist, Dr. William Shearer.

David Vetter was born 44 years ago at St. Luke's, in the Texas Medical Center. He was quickly transferred to Texas Children's Hospital, where doctors confirmed a diagnosis of severe combined immunodeficiency, or SCID. His compromised immune system left him extremely vulnerable to infections and death. His parents had already lost an infant son at the age of 7 months to the disease.

While the Vetters waited for science to find a cure or treatment for SCID, David grew up inside clear, enclosed habitats that protected him from pathogens. His food, clothing, toys and books were disinfected before being passed to him through special air-locks. David played, received tutoring, and lived his entire life in the "bubble" – a larger one inside his family's home in Shenandoah, Texas, and sometimes a smaller one at Texas Children's Hospital. Through media reports, he became known as "the boy in the bubble."

David Vetter died at age 12, after an experimental bone marrow transplant from his sister led to an unexpected lymphoma. After his death, scientists discovered that the transplant had also infected David with a dormant Epstein-Barr virus. The virus spawned the lymphoma, providing clear confirmation of the theory that viruses can cause some cancers.

Today 38 states, including Texas, screen all newborns for SCID, and 92 percent go on to be successfully treated with a bone marrow transplant. Researchers are also working on an experimental gene therapy as another form of treatment.

Excerpts from the audio conversation:

Carol Ann Demaret, 73: "David was born Sept. 21, 1972. He was taken from me and placed in this germ-free isolator, later to be called a ‘bubble.’ I watched as one doctor baptized David, which was my request, and another doctor sealed up the porthole. And that is a memory I keep in my mind almost daily, watching David taken from me and placed in that bubble."

Dr. William Shearer, 78: "I remember the first time I saw your son David. I was overwhelmed at his presence which seemed to expand far beyond the bubble, this plastic container that he lived in. When it was announced that I was going to be his doctor, he took a stance with his arms akimbo on his hips and with sort of a not quite believing expression, so much so that he might be asking ‘So, you're going to be my new doctor?'"

To listen to the entire conversation, click on the audio link above.


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