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.

Sometimes, though, David revealed his inner turmoil -- though at great cost to himself and the people who cared for him. Given the news that Dr. Wilson had a heart attack and was in intensive care, he smeared excrement all over the inside of the bubble; hospital workers spent three days cleaning the mess. Murphy theorized that David's reaction betrayed his deep fear of abandonment: Wilson's heart attack was one more piece of evidence that people would leave him, and that he was powerless to follow.

Other fears manifested themselves in recurring dreams. In one, David was attacked by thousands of spiders. In another -- which disturbed him even more -- the King of Germs dispatched thousands of his wives to invade the bubble. David was able to kill the wives, but the king simply married more to send after him.

"I don't know if it's a bad dream or if they're really pouncing on me," he told Murphy. "Maybe I'm crazy. Maybe I'm losing my mind."

Murphy tried to turn the dreams into games and think of ways he could kill his dream world enemies. Though he learned to cope with the nightmares, she says the fear of insanity plagued him from then on.

In 1977, NASA developed for David what was known as the Mobile Biologistical Isolation System. Basically, it was a $50,000 space suit that would allow David to venture outside the bubble. That July, Murphy joined the crowd in David's room: David's parents, NASA engineers and hospital staff, all gathered to see his first adventure in the suit. A camera crew was on hand to record the event.

To get into the suit, David had to crawl through an eight-foot tunnel that connected the suit to the bubble. Every movement was scheduled, but as the countdown began, Murphy says David asked her to hold him with the gloves that extended into the bubble. He wanted to be as far from the space suit as possible.

"I don't believe this," he said. "Mary, can you believe this? Look at that thing at the end of the tunnel. Now that's what I'm afraid of. Germs could be in there."

When the time came for David to crawl into the tunnel, he balked, and said he needed a few more minutes. After those minutes passed, he repeated his request -- and after those minutes, asked yet again for a few more. Finally, after the camera crew left the room, David entered the tunnel, pathetic and trembling. At one point, he got his head stuck in the suit and let out a bloodcurdling scream.

But once in the suit, he discovered it wasn't so bad. He held his gloved hands in front of his faceplate, grinned from ear to ear and said, "I like it." Never before had he taken more than six steps in any direction. But with his mobile support system, he was able that day to travel about 30 feet down the hallway, where he got a cup of ice and handed it to a nurse. It was the first time he'd ever given something to another person.

Though David seemed excited by the excursion, he voiced reservations about the suit before each of his six subsequent outings. When he outgrew the suit, it was replaced -- but he never wore the replacement.

Years later, when David saw a videotape of the made-for-TV movie loosely based on his life, he was most amused by the movie's treatment of the space suit. In The Boy in the Plastic Bubble, John Travolta played a 17-year-old boy who'd lived his entire life in sterile isolation. David laughed at the idea that his character could simply wear the space suit back into the isolator without contaminating the bubble.

In the grand tradition of made-for-TV movies, The Boy in the Plastic Bubble ended on an upbeat note: Travolta, without consulting anyone, simply decided to walk out of the bubble, join his buxom girlfriend on horseback and ride off into the sunset -- presumably to a good time and a certain death.

Certainly, the movie was a long way from realism. But unlike the press, Hollywood at least recognized that David's situation could not and should not go on indefinitely.

Newspapers and TV revealed no such shreds of grimness. In September 1977, the Houston Post reported cheerfully that "a sixth birthday is extra special for most boys and David's will be no exception." The article maintained that David "continues to thrive and develop at above-average rates." To the outside world, David was just a happy, healthy child, miraculously unscathed by the sterility of his life.

Reality was less pleasant. "The summer before David's eighth birthday marked the beginning of the end," Murphy wrote. "Painfully aware of being different and not belonging to a peer group, he inevitably concluded, 'Let's face it -- what do I have in common with kids my own age? Nothing.' "

His explosive rages grew more frequent. After exhausting himself, he'd be aghast at his behavior, afraid that people would leave him and not return.

Murphy was disturbed by David's preoccupation with death and fascination with fire. He drew giant flames to burn down the hospital or his home. He'd then pretend to extinguish the flames by urinating on his drawing.

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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.

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

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?

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

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

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

NkA1
NkA1

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

 
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