health

"My baby was diagnosed with whooping cough at 11 weeks. But we're the lucky ones."

My daughter was diagnosed with whooping cough at 11 weeks, but we are the lucky ones.

Many people gawk at the statement before I clarify we are, in fact, lucky. We are lucky because we are one of the families able to bring our precious baby home. Many are not as fortunate.

The words ‘luck’ and ‘fortunate’ are not typically synonymous with watching your baby struggle to breathe; watching your newborn cough so hard they are deprived of oxygen; watching the ‘Emergency’ call button be pressed in their hospital room numerous times.

But here I sit, watching her run around our lounge and she is with me. She is here. At the end of the day that makes me the luckiest mother in the world.

In early June 2014 my daughter woke up without a wet nappy. Being a fabulous 10-hour-plus sleeper (again, the word luck comes to mind), her waking without urinating was a huge concern. The persistent cough she had had for almost three weeks was growing in intensity, but the dry nappy terrified me. I immediately made another appointment with our GP for the earliest time slot we could secure: 1pm.

We went about our morning as usual: feed, play, sleep. During her first nap I couldn’t shake the feeling something was wrong; something much more wrong than the bronchiolitis she had been diagnosed with a fortnight earlier. I called our GP’s clinic again. No earlier appointments had opened up. I decided to break every parenting rule by waking my sleeping baby to bundle her into the car.

We live approximately 25 minutes away from our closest children’s hospital. As Murphy’s Law dictates, traffic almost doubled our travel time. Throughout the journey I kept switching between thinking I was overreacting and knowing I was doing the right thing.

whooping cough dangers
We are lucky because we are one of the families able to bring our precious baby home. Image via iStock.
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Five minutes from the hospital, my daughter coughed and then nothing. Pure, spine-tingling silence. A look in my rear vision mirror welcomed sight of my girl in the reverse mirror. But her eyelids weren’t flickering; they weren’t moving at all. Her usually beautiful pink skin was a blue-tinged grey. She wasn’t moving. She wasn’t breathing. And the traffic prohibited us from moving.

Calling an ambulance mere minutes from a hospital whilst stuck in traffic wasn’t wise, so driving to the hospital was our best bet. After what felt like a lifetime, my daughter gasped. The sound pierced the silence, dried up my tears and encased me in a blanket of relief. Her following cries were more beautiful than any sound I have ever heard, or expect to ever hear. My daughter was still with me.

We finally arrived at the hospital minutes later. I dislodged her capsule and ran inside with the grace of a drunken sailor. My voice exposed the multitude of emotions I was feeling and my screams of ‘my baby wasn’t breathing’ were met with numerous hospital staff rushing over. Within seconds they saw my rosy-cheeked girl and their disdain for me was obvious.

Well, didn’t I feel crazy. The triage nurse told me she was fine, her breathing and oxygen levels were ideal, and she’d be seen in turn. We were placed on the lowest triage category and ushered to the general waiting room. Of course it must have been in my head.

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As each hour passed, I grew more concerned their assessment of my daughter’s health — and my sanity — was accurate. After two hours I finally got hold of my husband, who told me to calm down and wait until we saw a doctor. He knew I wouldn’t have gone into the hospital unless I was convinced our baby needed to be there.

At the turn of the fourth hour in the waiting room, I was convinced it was all in my head. I was sure I hadn’t actually seen my daughter properly back in the car at the freeway turn off. I knew I must have been seeing things founded in fear rather than sight.

Forty minutes later, as I was beginning to pack everything away in the pram, my sleeping daughter stopped breathing again. Her chest wasn’t rising and her skin immediately began graying. I ran to the nurse’s desk at a speed Usain Bolt would be proud of. The nurses caught the end of the episode and realised this ‘crazy, stressed-out mum’ maybe wasn’t so unstable after all.

The doctor attempted to ease my concerns by explaining that the symptoms were most definitely bronchiolitis. I told her they were not. I explained my son’s health and respiratory issues and how I knew the difference between bronchiolitis and something else. This was definitely something else. The doctor was less convinced and attempted to excuse herself to go write a management plan for us to follow at home. I respectfully disagreed and insisted on a second opinion.

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The second doctor listened to me and all my concerns. She knew I was not about to leave without knowing exactly why my daughter wasn’t breathing consistently. She knew I wanted, needed and deserved answers.

During our conversation my greatest fear came true: whooping cough was a possibility. Although at this point it was only a very small one, it still was right there on the cards in front of us. One way or another, within 24 hours we would know what was going on and would be in a better position to support her.

whooping cough
We are lucky because we are one of the family’s able to bring our precious baby home.

This is the point most parents would say they have never been more scared. The majority would say they were terrified and didn’t know how to cope. I had been here before. I had been in a similar room, with a similar doctor, with my eldest waiting for answers for an unknown illness. The fear of the unknown wasn’t new to me, and if anything, that made me more terrified. I was still. I was silent. I was not OK.

We were soon taken to the ‘Short-Stay Ward’, where our admission lasted a lot longer than the name suggested. The fear radiated from me. I knew about whooping cough. I had thoroughly researched it throughout my pregnancies. My son, husband and I were vaccinated and my daughter had her first vaccination at exactly six weeks old. I did everything to protect my baby against whooping cough.

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The next day was the longest of my life, and I went through each stage of grief. Well, at least I thought I had. When presented with the official results I broke down; I was alone with my little baby and no one could guarantee I would ever take her home.

Our hospital stay was long, difficult, exhausting and medically intrusive, but we made it to a point she could be transferred home. My relief was palpable; I was convinced things would be easier from then on.

However, what most people don’t know about whooping cough is it can take months for the residual cough to dissipate. We, of course, fell into the latter end of the spectrum: seven months to be exact. Our son was also ill, and our tiny home was not the ideal place to contain two children who needed complete separation.

As the saying goes, this too did pass. Though it was difficult, I was home, my babies were home, and I knew they would be OK, eventually.

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Whooping cough led to numerous other health complications for my daughter. She has had severe gastrological and neurological issues. Nearly three years on, we are still under five different hospital departments. Our journey may be difficult because of the disease she suffered, but she is now growing and blossoming. Her health is only one aspect of her. Her contracting whooping cough may have altered all of our lives, most likely forever, but she is here and that makes us fortunate and grateful.

Soon after beginning our own experience with whooping cough, another family’s newborn was bestowed the same diagnosis. Their child’s outcome was horrendously less favourable and, like us, their lives will never be the same. Unlike us, this family cannot use the term ‘lucky’ to describe their situation. Whooping cough kills. Whooping cough leaves lasting damage. As parents, we all have the power to do our utmost to decrease the likelihood another parent will live our experiences.

Individual vaccination is not, and as far as my research can tell, will never be the sole defense against such horrible diseases in our community. Herd immunity through a very high percentage of vaccinated people needs to be our goal.

As adults, advocating the importance of vaccines is admirable, but ensuring your own vaccine schedule is up to date is crucial.

Vaccines save and improve lives. Vaccinate yourself and your children. Not only for their safety, but also for the safety of all others, including mine.

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