By William P. Thompson
Born on Avenue H in Portales, Dr. Mary Ann South’s life journey has taken her from Portales into the frontiers of medical research and back again. A pivotal event in her life was the birth of David Vetter in 1971. Vetter, now remembered worldwide as “the boy in the bubble,” survived 12 years in a flexible plastic film “isolator” after being born with a rare disease called Severe Combined Immunodeficiency Disease (SCID).
The isolator was later termed a “bubble” by the media. Vetter died in Feb. 1984.
South was one of Vetter’s primary physicians the first year and a half of his life at the Texas Children’s Hospital at Baylor University in Houston. South said Vetter’s parents had recently lost Vetter’s older brother to the same disease when Vetter’s mother became pregnant again.
Vetter was placed in isolation upon birth, and blood tests were conducted.
“We didn’t know until three days after he (Vetter) was born that he had the disease,” South said. “He was in the isolator. His mother was able to hold him by inserting her arms in gloves attached to the chamber through a special port.”
Although Vetter was isolated, South said he acted like any other normal infant. She said she remains in contact with Vetter’s family members to this day and keeps a scrapbook in her Portales home of personal photos she took of Vetter.
The story of how South came to care for Vetter begins at Portales Junior High School.
“A teacher named Mrs. Louise Cooper inspired all kinds of people to get involved in science,” South said. “I read a book about a male doctor and it seemed so romantic. I decided that if a girl could be a doctor then I would become a doctor, and so I did.”
After graduating from Eastern New Mexico University, South enrolled in medical school at Baylor. During medical school, South became a protégé of Dr. Martha Yow. During South’s residency Yow started an infectious diseases section at Baylor, and later during South’s fellowship training, Yow said she needed an immunologist for the infectious diseases section. South volunteered to throw herself into research into the body’s defense mechanisms against infections and cancer.
In the mid 1960’s South joined a research team at the University of Minnesota.
“I was certainly joining a group that was doing important research,” South said. “Led by Dr. Robert Good, we were learning to define what cells were responsible for immune reactions.”
South returned to Baylor in 1966 and saw her first SCID patient, a young girl.
“The little girl was very sick and she died,” South said. “By 1970 we had seven or eight cases and they all died. We weren’t able to prolong their lives for very long. They had infections that will kill you pretty quick. They were the same kind of infections experienced by some AIDS patients.”
Before Vetter was born, his parents asked South if the newborn could be kept from getting an infection if he was diagnosed with SCID.
“We said, ‘Well maybe we could protect him from catching anything,’” South said, “by using germ-free technology in the form of protective isolation. It could keep him from coming into contact with any type of germs. He was born germ free and was placed into that isolation five seconds after he was born.”
The isolation was designed as a temporary measure until a bone marrow transplant could be performed. It took eleven years before such a procedure could be performed on Vetter.
“By the time he was 11 there were two methods of performing a bone marrow transplant even though he didn’t have a matching donor,” South said.
Vetter died at the age of 12 from an infection he got at the time of a bone marrow transplant designed to cure him. South said the bone marrow transplant was the only procedure that could have cured him.
Vetter survived longer than anyone else in protective isolation. South said she was able to withstand children dying under her care because of her belief in a higher power.
“I’ve always believed that death is not our enemy and our lives are in God’s hands,” she said. “My patients’ lives were not in my hands. They were in God’s hands.”
South said it was simply a series of opportunities that opened up which caused her to be in a position to care for the “boy in the bubble.”
“It turned out to be the high point of my career,” she said. “He was a big part of my life. I will always remember him. For a 12-year-old boy, he was really a man. He died a man.”
Vetter still impacts South’s life. A documentary called “The Boy in The Bubble” airing on the show American Experience April 10 at 8 p.m. on local PBS station KENW. It airs again April 13 at 8 p.m.
“They interviewed me four hours for the documentary,” South said, “and the documentary will only be an hour.”
Pointing to a photo of Vetter in his “bubble,” South reflected on the bubble’s purpose.
”He looks so sad in this photo,” she said. “ Nobody ever talked about keeping him in a bubble the rest of his life. The purpose of the bubble was to protect him from infection until we could find a way to cure him. He had a shot at being cured.”