This post originally appeared on January 31, 2016. I am reposting it as/is today because it accompanies a book review I will repost after this.
The 70s and 80s were an interesting time to grow up. They don’t seem like they were that long ago to me, but now that I’ve reached middle age, I can say with honesty that they were. One story that intrigued millions of people when I was growing up was the story of David Vetter.
David Phillip Vetter was born on September 21, 1971, about the time my parents conceived me. He was from Conroe, Texas, a suburb of Houston. He had an older brother, David Joseph Vetter III, who died the year prior to his birth. Both David and his brother had a genetic disease called SCID (severe combined immunodeficiency). It meant that they were born without immune systems that could effectively fight off infections. The slightest illness could be fatal to someone with SCID.
Because David had this disease at a time before there was a treatment for it, he was forced to spend all but two weeks of his life in a plastic bubble. I distinctly remember hearing and reading about David. I also remember the 1976 film John Travolta, Robert Reed, and Diana Hyland famously starred in called The Boy in The Plastic Bubble. I saw the movie many times when I was growing up. It was based on the real life story of Ted DeVita, a teenager who had severe aplastic anemia. Ted DeVita lived in a sterile hospital room for over eight years. DeVita’s and Vetter’s experiences were fascinating to people all over the world. DeVita died in 1980 of iron overload, caused by too many blood transfusions.
I’m reminded of David’s story this morning. There was a link to a New York Times retro report on my Facebook feed. Though I hadn’t thought about David Vetter in a very long time, I quickly found myself recalling him as I watched the 12 minute video and read the accompanying article.
Had he lived, David would be my age. He had a bone marrow transplant that initially worked. Unfortunately, the marrow had a dormant strain of the Epstein Barr virus in it. The virus activated, and David ended up with a virulent cancer that overwhelmed his body. He died on February 22, 1984.
On David’s grave, the epitaph reads “He never touched the world… but the world was touched by him.” Even now, knowing that children with SCID are no longer kept in plastic bubbles, I can’t help but wonder what life would have been like for David, had he managed to become an adult. Though he was able to accomplish a lot in his twelve years and provided science and medicine with new knowledge about a rare disease, there were so many things he couldn’t do.
NASA made David a space suit, which he wore a handful of times. The suit allowed him to emerge from the bubble, though he remained tethered to it by an eight foot long cloth tube. He never felt his mother’s kiss until he emerged from the bubble for the bone marrow transplant. He never would have been able to have sex. I even wonder if he ever saw a dentist… though, I guess if you live in a sterile environment, bacteria is not an issue. Doctors worried what life would be like for David if he made it to teenhood or even adulthood. Would he be able to tolerate life in the plastic bubble for an entire normal lifespan?
I am amazed by what David Vetter’s twelve years on Earth did for the advancement of science, ethics, and medicine. I am also amazed at how old I am now. It seems like yesterday, I was just a youngster. I look at those photos and videos of David Vetter in his germ free environment, knowing that was state of the art medicine for the 1970s and 80s. What happened to him then, would never work today. Nowadays, kids who are identified with SCID before they get sick are given bone marrow transplants. In fact, in the video posted with the New York Times story, there is even a story about a woman whose son had SCID identified in utero. He had a bone marrow transplant before he was even born.
When I was in high school, one of the most popular guys in the senior class developed aplastic anemia. He ended up going to the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, where he died just weeks later. The day Mike Haury died, was coincidentally also the day 55,000 Armenians died in a massive earthquake… December 7, 1988. I have read that aplastic anemia is now much more successfully treated than it was in the 80s. Again, it just doesn’t seem like it was that long ago. I guess it was.
Edited to add: Although I know that COVID-19 life is nothing like it must have been for David Vetter, in a weird way, the constant focus on contagion and masking kind of reminds me of him. I’m looking forward to having the next vaccine.