The Boy in the Bubble – American Experience47:47

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Published on July 24, 2016

 Boy in the Bubble

David Vetter

VIDEO about The Boy in the Bubble

For the politician, see David Vitter.
David Vetter
Born David Phillip Vetter
September 21, 1971
Houston, Texas, U.S.
Died February 22, 1984 (aged 12)
Dobbin, Texas, U.S.
Cause of death Lymphoma; complications fromSCID

David Phillip Vetter (September 21, 1971 – February 22, 1984)[1] was a prominent sufferer of severe combined immunodeficiency(SCID), a hereditary disease which dramatically weakens the immune system. Individuals born with SCID are abnormally susceptible to infections, and exposure to pathogens can be fatal. Vetter was referred to as “David, the bubble boy” by the media. Vetter’s surname was not revealed to the general public until 10 years after his death in order to preserve his family’s privacy.

In his first years of life he lived mostly at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston, Texas. As he grew older, he lived increasingly at home with his parents and older sister Katherine in Dobbin, Texas. He died in 1984, at the age of 12.

Family and birth[edit]

Vetter’s parents were David Joseph Vetter, Jr. and Carol Ann Vetter. Their first son, David Joseph Vetter III, was also born with SCID and died at 7 months of age. Vetter’s parents were advised by physicians that any future male children they might conceive would have a 50% chance of inheriting the disease. 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, decided to proceed with another pregnancy. Their third child, David Phillip Vetter, was born September 21, 1971.

A special sterilized cocoon bed was prepared for Vetter at his birth. Immediately after being removed from his mother’s womb, Vetter entered the plastic germ-free environment that would be his home for most of his life. Vetter 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, Vetter’s sister, Katherine, was not a match.[2]

Life in the bubble[edit]

Water, air, food, diapers and clothes were sterilized before entering the sterile chamber. Items were placed in a chamber filled with ethylene oxide gas for four hours at 140 degrees Fahrenheit (60˚C), and then aerated for a period of one to seven days before being placed in the sterile chamber.

After being placed in the sterile chamber, Vetter 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, which included Dr. John Montgomery, 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 Vetter’s birth, the treatment team built an additional sterile chamber in his parents’ home in Conroe, Texas, and a transport chamber so that Vetter could spend periods of two to three weeks at home. Vetter had his sister and friends for company while at home. A friend arranged for a special showing of Return of the Jedi at a local theater so that Vetter could attend the movie in his transport chamber.[3]

When Vetter 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.[4]

In 1977, researchers from NASA used their experience with the fabrication of space suits to develop a special suit that would allow Vetter to get out of his bubble and walk in the outside world. The suit was connected to his bubble via an eight-foot (2.5 m) 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.[citation needed]

Psychological and ethical aspects[edit]

During Vetter’s life, the only options for children born with SCID were either to be sequestered in a sterile environment or else to quickly die from infection. The case raised numerous ethical questions, including whether parents with the genetic traits producing a 50% chance of SCID should have children, and whether the knowledge produced by such research justified allowing or encouraging parents to have children subject to this risk.[citation needed]


Approximately $1.3 million was spent on Vetter’s care, but scientific study failed to produce a true “cure” and no donor match had been identified. Physicians expressed concern that as a teenager Vetter could become unpredictable and uncontrollable.[citation needed] Vetter later received a bone marrow transplant from his sister, Katherine. While his body didn’t reject the transplant,[3] he became ill with infectious mononucleosis after a few months.[5] He died 15 days later on February 22, 1984, from Burkitt’s lymphoma at age 12. The autopsy revealed that the donor Katherine’s bone marrow contained traces of a dormant virus, Epstein-Barr, which had been undetectable in the pre-transplant screening.[6]

He was buried at Conroe Memorial Park, Conroe, Montgomery County, Texas.


An elementary school which opened in 1990 in The Woodlands in unincorporated Montgomery County, Texas, was named David Elementary after Vetter.[citation needed]


Vetter’s 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.[citation needed]

See also[edit]


  1. Jump up^ “David Phillip Vetter”. PBS. 6 March 2006. Retrieved 19 December 2015.
  2. Jump up^ [1]
  3. ^ Jump up to:a b The Boy In The Bubble. American Experience, PBS
  4. Jump up^ McVicker, Steve (April 10, 1997). “Bursting the Bubble”. The Houston Press. Archived from the original on September 6, 2015. RetrievedApril 17, 2016.
  5. Jump up^ Tortora & Grabowski (1993). Principles of Anatomy and Physiology (7th ed.).
  6. Jump up^ Roane, Kit (December 6, 2015). “The Boy in the Bubble”. Retro Report.The New York Times.

External links[edit]

The Boy in the Plastic Bubble

The Boy in the Plastic Bubble
The Boy in the Plastic Bubble.jpg
Genre Movie
Written by Screenplay:
Douglas Day Stewart
Joe Morgenstern
Directed by Randal Kleiser
Starring John Travolta
Diana Hyland
Robert Reed
Ralph Bellamy
Glynnis O’Connor
Theme music composer Mark Snow
Country of origin USA
Original language(s) English
Producer(s) Cindy Dunne
Joel Thurm
Editor(s) John McSweeney Jr.
Running time 97 min.
Original network ABC
Original release
  • November 1, 1976

The Boy in the Plastic Bubble is a 1976 American made-for-television drama film inspired by the lives of David Vetter and Ted DeVita, who lacked effective immune systems. It stars John Travolta, Glynnis O’Connor, Diana Hyland, Robert Reed, and P.J. Soles. It was written by Douglas Day Stewart, executive produced by Aaron Spelling and Leonard Goldberg (who, at the time, producedStarsky and Hutch and Charlie’s Angels), and directed by Randal Kleiser, who would work with Travolta again in Grease shortly after. The original music score was composed by Mark Snow. William Howard Taft High School in Woodland Hills was used for filming.[citation needed]

The movie first aired on November 1, 1976, on the ABC television network.

Plot summary[edit]

The film centers on the life of Tod Lubitch, who was born with an improperly functioning immune system. This means that contact with unfiltered air may kill him, so he must live out his life in incubator-like conditions. He lives with his parents, in Houston, Texas. He is restricted to staying in his room all his life, where he eats, learns, reads, and exercises, while being protected from the outside world by various coverings.

As Tod grows, he wishes to see more of the outside world and meet regular people his age. He is enrolled at the local school after being equipped with suitable protective clothing, similar in style to a space suit. He falls in love with his next door neighbor, Gina Biggs, and he must decide between following his heart and facing near-certain death, or remaining in his protective bubble forever. In the end, after having a discussion with his doctor who tells him he has built up some immunities which may possibly be enough to survive the real world, he steps outside his house, unprotected, and he and Gina ride off on her horse.

Main cast[edit]


The “Bubble Boy” who inspired this film, David Vetter, questioned the film’s depiction of how sterile Tod’s use of the spacesuit was. Vetter scoffed at the idea that Travolta’s character could simply wear the space suit back into the isolator without contaminating the bubble.[1]

The film was nominated for four Emmy Awards, winning one posthumously for Hyland.


Days after Bill Clinton was inaugurated as U.S. President, William Safire reported on the phrase “in the bubble” as used in reference to living in the White House.[2] Safire traced that usage in U.S. presidential politics to a passage in the 1990 political memoir What I Saw at the Revolution by Peggy Noonan, where she used it to characterize Ronald Reagan‘s “wistfulness about connection”; Richard Ben Cramer used the phrase two years later in What It Takes: The Way to the White House with reference to George H. W. Bushand how he had been “cosseted and cocooned in comfort by 400 people devoted to his security” and “never s[aw] one person who was not a friend or someone whose sole purpose it was to serve or protect him.”[2] Noonan’s use was a reference to The Boy in the Plastic Bubble.[2]

The film inspired the first song on the 1986 Paul Simon album Graceland.[3] In 1992, the film’s premise was satirized in the seventh episode of the fourth season of Seinfeld. It was also the subject of the 2001 comedic remake Bubble Boy and the 2007 musical In the Bubble produced by American Music Theatre Project and featuring a book by Rinne Groff, music by Michael Friedman and Joe Popp and lyrics by Friedman, Groff and Popp.[3]

The film was mentioned several times on the series That ’70s Show, in the “S.W.A.K” episode of NCIS and in the film Superstar.

The film had a personal impact on Travolta and Hyland, who began a six-month romantic relationship until her death, after the film ended principal photography.[4]

In 2010, Mystery Science Theater 3000 alumni Michael J. Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett recorded a synchronized mocking commentary of the film for a RiffTrax VOD release.

See also[edit]


  1. Jump up^ McVicker, Steve. “Bursting the Bubble.” Houston Press, April 10, 1997.
  2. ^ Jump up to:a b c William Safire (January 24, 1993). “The Man in the Big White Jail”. On Language (The New York Times). Retrieved 2009-05-18.
  3. ^ Jump up to:a b “World Premiere ‘In the Bubble’ Fourth New Musical for AMTP”. Northwestern University. 2007-05-22. Retrieved 2009-05-18. AMTP’s newest musical was inspired by multiple “bubble boy” sources in pop culture, including the 1976 Emmy-nominated made-for-television movie “The Boy in the Plastic Bubble,” starring John Travolta; the 1987 Paul Simon song “The Boy in the Bubble”; a 1992 “Seinfeld” television episode; and Bandeira Entertainment’s 2001 screen comedy “Bubble Boy,” starring Jake Gyllenhaal, (and more potently, the protests surrounding the Gyllenhaal film).
  4. Jump up^ “High Steppin’ to stardom”. Time. April 3, 1978. Retrieved 2009-05-18. At the cast party, Travolta remembers, ‘we admitted not only a friendly attraction but a sexual one. The intensity of it was new to both of us.’…She [later] told him that their six months together were the happiest time of her life…. Says Travolta, ‘I would have married her.’

External links[edit]

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