I came across this New York Times video story about David Vetter, the original boy in the bubble, and a wash of memories rushed through me.
I was 11 years old when the movie based loosely on Vetter’s story was released. And like “Sybil” and “Go Ask Alice” and “Billy Jack,” “The Boy in the Plastic Bubble” was a strange TV movie that I couldn’t stop thinking about.
Vetter was born in the early 1970s with the same genetic severe immunodeficiency that killed his brother as an infant the year before. The only way doctors knew how to keep Vetter alive was to separate him from germs by keeping him in a plastic bubble. Everything that went into the bubble was sterilized and he never felt human touch directly against his skin.
Eventually, researchers discovered that a bone marrow transplant could make it possible for Vetter to leave the bubble, so when he was an adolescent (around the age I was when the movie came out), he had the transplant. It took and he had a short period of time where he lived outside of the bubble, but it ends up there was a trace of Epstein-Barr virus in the blood that was transferred into Vetter’s bone marrow. This led to the boy developing lymphoma and dying not long after he left the bubble.
John Travolta played the Vetter character in the movie and his character grew older than Vetter did in real life. I remember how sad and uncomfortable it was for me to see this teenaged boy unable to interact with other kids or his family. I remember feeling excited when he got out of the bubble and upset when he started having difficulties again.
What made the recent news report interesting is that this boy’s experience has led to scientific discoveries that have led to children born with this same immunodeficiency as Vetter leading normal lives. The doctors claim that if they discover the immunodeficiency before birth or in infancy, they can do the transplant either in vitro or to the infant and there is a 95% success rate. The success rate drops significantly if they don’t diagnose the disease before the child has his or her first infection.
It was heartwarming to see, in the NYT piece, a 19 year old boy who received the transplant in vitro and has lived a normal life. His brother was one of the children who wasn’t diagnosed until his first infection at a few months old; that boy died at 6 months old from complications from that infection.
I was so enamored with the movie when I was a kid that I never thought about how it would effect the families of children with this awful condition. Ends up it was terribly upsetting for them, but it also brought the condition to the forefront of people’s minds, which likely led to funding for the research that has proven miraculous for newborns with this immunodeficiency.
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