Bursting the Bubble

"Bubble Boy" David Vetter was hardly the happy, well-adjusted child portrayed in the media. Thirteen years after his death, his friend Mary Murphy is fighting to tell his story.

Prior to the delivery, the Vetters had arranged for a priest to be on hand to baptize their son after he'd been placed inside the bubble. Like almost everything else David would touch during the next 12 years, the holy water was sterilized.

David was transferred to a room at Texas Children's Hospital, which was then a part of St. Luke's. His bubble, made of transparent polyvinyl chloride film, sat on a plain wooden table next to a window.

Attached to the "crib bubble" was a small "supply bubble," which contained items such as diapers, clothes, vitamins, food, washcloths, medicine and water. Sterilizing such supplies was no simple task. First, labels and glue were removed from bottles and jars containing pre-sterilized food. Then those and other necessities were loaded into perforated cylinders, which were placed in chambers filled with ethylene oxide gas, at a temperature of 140 degrees Fahrenheit, for four hours. Afterward, the containers had to be aerated for one to seven days before they could enter the bubble.

The walls of the bubble were fitted with heavy-duty rubber gloves so that his parents and medical personnel could handle David. Using those gloves, they diapered and fed the baby, and hugged him as best they could.

Mary Murphy's office was only two doors away from David's room. She was working as a psychological associate at Baylor College of Medicine's Center for Developmental Pediatrics, and she watched as a constant parade of visitors -- princes and royalty, even Beverly Sills -- trooped past her door, intent on seeing David; he served as a kind of tourist attraction for VIPs. It was said that Hermann Hospital had a helicopter, and Texas Children's had the Bubble Boy.

Murphy passed by David's room many times each day, but she never looked in. The project appalled her, and she wanted nothing to do with it.

Murphy had come to psychology late in life. As a college student during World War II, she'd studied to be a mechanical engineer. But instead of pursuing that career, she married and moved to Texas. After her husband left her, she and her infant son found themselves alone in Houston.

"I had a baby, a penny and a potato," laughs Murphy, a matronly but attractive woman with short white hair. To support her son and herself, she went to work as a waitress. Murphy remarried, and in the late 1950s, she enrolled part-time at the University of Houston. She graduated in 1967, and earned her master's degree two years later. While an instructor at Baylor, she began her doctoral work. In her office at Texas Children's, she struggled to complete her dissertation, examining the stresses that beset families of children with birth defects.

By the fall of 1974, David was no longer a constant presence outside Murphy's door. A plastic bubble had been set up in the Vetters' home in Conroe, and the child could spend two to three weeks at a time there. Ironically, Murphy met David not at the hospital, but in his home.

Her mentor, Dr. Barry Molish, was working on an article about David's psychosocial development, and asked Murphy to assist him by giving the child psychological and intelligence tests. She agreed reluctantly, and on the day after David's third birthday, she and Molish drove to Conroe in the pouring rain.

To Murphy's surprise, she was smitten with David, a handsome, dark-complected boy with a thick mop of black hair and dark, wide-spaced eyes. She wondered how the boy could survive in such a confined space. The isolator bubbles were periodically replaced with larger models as David grew, but even the largest was tiny: six feet by two feet by four and a half feet. (Later, a sterile "playroom" would be attached.)

Murphy could barely hear the boy speak over the roar of the bubble's blower motors, and she asked to turn them off. David laughed. "He said I was dumb," she remembers, "and didn't I know that the bubble would deflate if the motors were turned off?"

In spite of the noise, Murphy administered tests. Asked to define a tree, David responded that it was a brown rectangle with a green oval on top. She was stunned, amazed that a three-year-old would know so much about geometry but so little about the stuff of daily life.

No, she told David, the green part was made of leaves. He replied that she was totally wrong.

To prove her point, she fetched her umbrella and went outside. As David watched through a window, she broke a small limb off a tree and brought it inside for him to examine through the plastic. "You never saw so much astonishment in your life," she remembered. She left the Vetter home that night feeling that there was much she could teach David -- but she had no intention of doing so.

A few days later, Murphy's boss informed her that David was back at Texas Children's, and that his mother and the hospital staff were having trouble with him. Specifically, a photographer from United Press International was standing by to snap the first pictures of David as he entered his newly constructed playroom. Roughly 11 feet long, six and a half feet wide and eight feet tall, the sterile space marked a huge addition to David's world. But to the embarrassment of the medical team, he refused to crawl through the stainless steel tubing that connected his bubble to its new addition. Since Murphy and David had gotten along so well, David's mother suggested that Murphy might help coax David into the play area. Murphy agreed to try -- but only after she finished her other duties for that afternoon.

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19 comments
Celia Huerta
Celia Huerta

David was just a child, a human being. He suffered his entire life trapped in a very small plastic bubble. As the numan being he was, he got mentally ill, yet, he remained aware and despite bouts of dispair, he didn't entirely lose hope until the very end. David had to be strong and courageous in a way most humans don't have to be. I am so glad he had Mary Murphy by his side, validating his reality in a way no one else would. It was an extremely sad and lonely existance. First he was treated like an experimental animal while trapped in a bubble; second most Drs, the media and even his parents chose to believe he was ok in a bubble. No one in their right mind trully believes he was a "happy child". Are encarcerated people content to be confined to a small space? Research indicates not. It's horrible for inmates, it's even worse for a little child. It has devastating effects on a child's development. That's humanity 101. I hope David has found freedom wherever he is. I hope he is in a place now where he can thrive, be happy and have a decent existance.

Guest
Guest

Looks like the book has or will become available: Bubbleboybook dot com claims that it will be up by 1/15/12.

realnewz
realnewz

This is the third article I read of this case and it just raises more questions than answers.This is the first I hear of him being donated to science before he was born.How cruel is that?

I think the doctors knew what they were doing before he was born. Because why would they think they would find an instant cure once he was born? That doesnt really make sense and where did he use the washroom?

Since he was put in the bubble 10 seconds after being born how did they know he had the disease? They say there was a 50/50 chance of him being born with it but never get into details with how they knew he had the disease. If he tested positive for the disease why no mention of that?

I think they wanted to study him and his dna.I dont think it was a fluke coincidence that they couldnt find a cure for him. Or at least finding a cure was a boogus excuse to study him.Even some of his bubble contraptions look like a rat experiment/maze.

I find it odd that he would ask about his legal rights and want his friend to write a book about him. I think there is alot more to this story that isnt being told.He may have been the first human clone or a humanoid alien. lolStrange but that would make a little more sense of this tragic story.

This bizarre case reminds me of E.T. and the Truman Show combined.

Richardstephens99
Richardstephens99

Since he was put in the bubble 10 seconds after being born how did they know he had the disease? because his first brother died from the disease and his mother carried a defective gene that cause scid and doctors told his parents that if they had any more male children they would have a 50% percent chance that they would have scid so the parent and doctor took precautions with the vetter's second son they put him in a bubble after he was born to protect him if he had scid a week later test proved he did have scid They say there was a 50/50 chance of him being born with it but never get into details with how they knew he had the disease. If he tested positive for the disease why no mention of that?

Shannonwoods31
Shannonwoods31

I agree 100%, this childs life was planned before he was born, his parents was tricked and were convinced to have another baby for tests, research and experiments, its just so sickening

Maxemillion Candace Cummings
Maxemillion Candace Cummings

These doctors were and are just sick!! if they dared lock my family in a bubble i would have them experience it first!!

Stephan Pickering
Stephan Pickering

Shalom & Erev tov...it is now 2011...the book never appeared...both David and Mary are in Spirit...what happened to the book's manuscript? Surely, with proper legal work, and with knowledge of the parents' participation in a horrific 'experiment' that saw their son's death, the book can be read.STEPHAN PICKERING / Chofetz Chayim ben-Avraham

Molly
Molly

I think the whole story is sad and just wrong. The poor boy was stuck in a bubble his whole life waiting for a cure that ended up being what killed him. I read some other articles about David and one of them said he asked his mother if he could try a Coca Cola before he died, and she said no because he was very sick and dying. He was never able to do and try things that other kids are able to do everyday.RIP David.

Maria
Maria

i think that the only thing mary want is money to publish her book.. know with internet, blogs, web pages, etc you can publish your story everywhere and "make your promess" so is obvious what she really want by telling the story

Bink
Bink

Ummmm. Nope. The threatened lawsuit would apply to a hardcover book, a paperback book, an audio book, a text file, etc. Are you so ignorant you think posting on the internet is somehow a "loophole" to alleged HIPAA violations? And that it "proves" that the author, at 70 years old, is now only out for money? Thank goodness the internet has come about, now anyone can libel people with impunity.

NkA1
NkA1

@Bink I believe that the author Mary Murphy is now deceased and the manuscript to her book has been posted online.

Allegra
Allegra

Such a tragic story. I feel very sad for the parents, who did what they did believing the doctors, and having faith in a cure, and who ended up denying their child's humanity. I hope to see Murphy's story some day but the litigious climate around this medical misstep makes that unlikely.

Celia
Celia

Heart-breaking story. I watched the documentary and have read several articles about David's life. I wish they would let Mary publish the story. I'm so glad he had her in her life. His reality was denied by the media and his own parents. This well intended but cruel action added to David's tragic experience. That denial of his reality and feelings kept him even more isolated.

denise
denise

its very sad.. pour boy..but i was suprised about the size of the bubble, six feet by two feet by four and a half feet, i dont know how big that is in meters, but the translator telled me dimensions where nobody could stand in it or something. so how big was it really?i really admire this boy & his force to live ..i think nobody could imagine what it means to live a long life in something like that. it must be gruesome ..rip david, now you have your freedom

Rose
Rose

How terrible that the parents and doctors did this to that child. He did not ask to be born so that he could live his life in a bubble. To do this on purpose I find very uncareing.

Angela
Angela

A sad story indeed. My blessings and peace to all the people involved on Davids life. I can only image how much they'll miss him even under such a unique way of living or experiencing the so call life. I would like to contact any of the parties involved in David's life, his parents, sister, doctors or someone who had the opportunity to meet him. Pleased contact me at email: arecurt@yahoo.com

M. Sipiaguine
M. Sipiaguine

This is such a sad story and I hope Mary's book and David's real story is one day published for all to read who cares about a glimpse into the truth. While David's case may have allowed the doctors to find potential cures for his condition and led to the discovery that viruses can cause cancer, it is obvious they were more interested in using him as a guinea pig, and I'm surprised that no one has been prosecuted for such a lapse in ethics. What century are we living in?

NkA1
NkA1

@M. Sipiaguine The manuscript of her book is online at bubbleboybook.com

 
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