A Mother and Son Infected with Pertussis

Almost two years have passed since my son, Chris, became infected with whooping cough, a disease that would begin a debilitating and exhausting breakdown of his respiratory system and body.

At 14 years old, Chris was a strapping (6' tall), vibrant, strong, and athletic young man. The summer was winding down and he was anticipating high school football practices. However, he noticed that physical activities, such as biking and playing ball, had become progressively difficult. He tired easily and experienced a heaviness in his chest and coughing. Doctor visits were unproductive; initially he was diagnosed and treated for bronchitis, but the treatments he received were futile.

Physical activities continued to grow more difficult for Chris, and eventually became completely impossible. Exertion caused severe coughing fits, which triggered vomiting and breathing distress. Our chiropractor provided a note for release from football practices for Chris. At that point, I also began to exhibit the onset of symptoms similar to Chris', and I, too, was misdiagnosed with bronchitis and treated with futile medications.

Every night I slept with cough drops in the roof of my mouth, trying to prevent coughing and gasping. I only grew worse. I tried ibuprofen, vitamin C, steaming, sitting up to sleep, icepacks on my throat, and allergy medicine. One morning, I purchased over the counter medication hoping to rid the prevalent mucus; the mucus was so thick I could barely talk or eat. I followed the dosage as listed on the box before bed that night and settled in as usual with an extra pillow to prop up my head position. I experienced the same frequent tossing and turning. However, by early morning I woke from a restless slumber to the frightening fact that I was unable to breathe!

I walked to the bathroom and stood over the sink, drooling and struggling for oxygen. I strained to inhale and exhale. Soon I was wondering if I was going to die. For one entire hour I strained, praying that I would not leave my children this way or at this time. Several minutes went by before I was again able to inhale and exhale more efficiently. I walked into the kitchen to warm the tea kettle in hopes of stimulating proper breathing with steam. Eventually I stabilized and woke the children. They were oblivious to my earlier episode, and since it was Sunday morning, we planned to attend church, as usual. Later that afternoon though, I remained worried and as evening approached I visited the Emergency Room. Barely able to speak, I explained to the doctor and nurses what had been happening to me and my son. As I sat on the exam bed, my wheezing and whooping became more prominent. Soon the doctor realized what he was hearing and diagnosed pertussis or whooping cough. Without a culture he could not be 100% certain, but he was convinced nonetheless. The doctor ordered a nasal culture and prescribed antibiotics and steroids, then sent me home.

I knew it was of immediate importance for my family to get treatment. I insisted that my three children also be seen by a doctor and receive antibiotics. My pregnant daughter, son in-law, and husband were also encouraged to seek treatment. We talked to the school, friends and their families, and even unrelated people in our community. Three days later my nasal culture came back positive for pertussis. I was the first in our community to be diagnosed properly, and the County Health Department was notified. Eventually more than two dozen people were diagnosed with whooping cough, and an epidemic was declared in our county.

With treatment, Chris' coughing and vomiting began to subside, although his breathlessness remained for several months and was further complicated by pneumonia and weight loss – side effects of the pertussis disease. After a long year of recovery, Chris has resumed more "normal" teenage activities, with few residual effects from this illness. Fortunately, after a long year and a half of recovery myself, I have also resumed more "normal" activities including walking, biking, singing, and snowboarding.

Jeanette and Chris
Oregon