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TELEVISION REVIEW

No immunity from loneliness

`Bubble' looks at the ethics of keeping David in a sterile plastic tent -- `a research subject as well as a patient.'

April 10, 2006|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

His story has become a part of modern Americana, giving rise to a Paul Simon song, a John Travolta movie and a mocking episode (is there any other kind?) of "Seinfeld."

Now documentary filmmakers Barak Goodman and John Maggio want us to consider the ethical issues involved in the case of David Vetter, the boy who spent his life inside an Orwellian-named "isolater" as he awaited a cure for his rare immune deficiency.

"The Boy in the Bubble," set for broadcast tonight as part of the American Experience series, is an even-handed look at the case, with interviews with most of the major figures, including several doctors and David's mother and footage of David himself.

Three decades later, it's still an engrossing story and Goodman and Maggio have done it justice, with some small quibbles.

The story begins with a couple's determination to have children, despite the recent death of a newborn son from a rare condition passed from the mother. (Girls are not affected.)

Doctors and immunologists offered hope: The new infant would be put in a sterile plastic tent until a bone-marrow transplant could be performed. "We wanted to have children right away and we wanted to have as many as God sent us," Carol Ann Vetter Demaret says.

Within seconds of his delivery by Caesarean section on Sept. 21, 1971, son David was placed inside his bubble. Just months later, it was discovered that his sister was not a bone marrow match.

The hunt for a backup cure was frustrating. Years passed. "One-two-three-four, I can't take this anymore," David chanted.

If "Bubble" bogs down, it is with the interviews with ethicists and writers who want to scold the doctors. "David was a research subject as well as a patient and those two roles became blurred," says one.

Yes, but the story is so compelling that it hardly needs to be dressed up with beard-stroking philosophers.

Annoyingly, some prosaic issues are left unaddressed. Who paid for all this? What about the effect on the family? His mother seems to have a new last name. What gives? (Google tells us the parents divorced and she married a reporter who covered David's story.)

The three doctors who devised the initial transplant strategy and much of David's care for years ultimately went on to other cases.

His next doctor -- William Shearer -- was not sold on the bubble idea. He worried about David's mental state. In 1983, he arranged for him to be infused with 2 ounces of his sister's bone marrow in hopes it would spark a cure.

David left the bubble in February 1984 at age 12 and died 15 days later.

Life in the bubble had proved intolerable. The scientific contraption that had protected him had become his biggest threat, Shearer said, providing a sad but fitting obituary.

*

'American Experience: The Boy in the Bubble'

Where: KCET

When: 9 tonight

Ratings: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)

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