What does it feel like to lose a child to whooping cough? US mother Chelsey Charles has experienced what no mother should ever have to, after her daughter contracted whooping cough after birth. Her story is republished with permission from Shot by Shot.
Unlike most teenage pregnancies mine was no accident; my sweet baby girl was planned. I found out I was pregnant when I was about four weeks along. My boyfriend, Tanner, and I were ecstatic. The next 20 weeks I did what any expecting mother would do – I shopped and planned and set up our room, making sure everything would be ready and perfect.
Kaliah Dailynn Holly Jeffery was born on July 20, 2011. When I first held her, my entire life changed. Gazing at me with her big brown bright eyes, as I touched her thick brown hair, I couldn’t put her down. She was absolutely gorgeous.
In the hospital, the doctor noticed I had a slight cough. I told her I’d had it for about a week. That night, my cough started to get worse. Still, nobody seemed too concerned about it. The doctors thought I was probably tired after labour. I was asked if I wanted to get the Tdap vaccine [the US vaccine for pertussis] before I left the hospital. I said yes. I hadn’t gotten the vaccine in five years and I'd needed it for school when I was pregnant, but they'd wanted to wait till after I gave birth. They gave me the shot the next day and sent me and my perfect little family home.
The next nine days went pretty great. I still had my cough but it hadn’t gotten any worse. When Kaliah was about 10 days old I heard her sneeze. Like any new mother, I panicked. I started searching the Internet on symptoms of newborn colds. At first nothing caught my eye - until I saw that whooping cough was “extremely dangerous for newborns.” The next day my cough sounded worse and I also heard Kaliah cough a few times. I took my baby to the walk-in clinic and told them I thought we had whooping cough.
I kissed her on the forehead and told her I loved her so much and she wouldn’t have to fight anymore
The doctor asked about our symptoms then told me we “didn’t have the symptoms of whooping cough" and that we appeared fine. I explained that I'd researched pertussis and that it makes you appear fine until you’re having a coughing spell. He finally agreed to test us, even though he said they'd never tested a baby so young before.
Two days later I got a phone call from the health department telling me that Kaliah and I were both positive for pertussis. I was in utter shock. How could this happen? The next day her cough got worse, she wasn’t keeping much food down, and she looked a little blue around her eyes. We went to the emergency room. They told us we should stay in the hospital overnight so they could observe her.
I thought we were just there for the night, but Kaliah wasn’t getting better. She wasn’t eating much, and when she did eat she would cough so hard she would throw up. They had to keep upping her dosage of oxygen. She was getting weaker. On day three in the hospital the doctors decided to put her on a feeding tube. I would pump breast milk and they would put her on a continuous drip.
On day five we had our first big scare when she stopped breathing. Tons of doctors and nurses rushed in to help her. The doctors explained that it was time to put her on a ventilator.
They let me and Tanner’s mum go into the room. We had to wear gowns, masks and gloves to make sure she wouldn’t catch anything else. Kaliah was in an incubator with wires on her, an IV in her wrist, and a ventilator tube in her mouth. It was so heartbreaking to see my little baby girl in so much pain. The doctors told me to go home for the night to get some rest. Later that night my phone rang, and the doctor told me Kaliah’s infection was taking over her blood cells.
The next morning Kaliah looked so puffy. She could no longer open her eyes and they had her on pain medications. The doctors told us we could hold her hand or her foot and that we should talk to her. I grabbed her hand and Tanner touched her foot and we told her that we loved her. We both stood there and cried.
I thought about how just a week ago she was healthy as can be, and all of a sudden, Kaliah started twitching. We were watching our 3½ week old baby have a seizure. Tanner and I were so scared - we didn’t know what was going to happen. They moved her that night to a children’s hospital.
The next morning a doctor told us she'd had another seizure that had lasted six minutes. They'd done a blood transfusion and a spinal tap. The doctor brought up an ECMO machine [a kind of life support machine for infants] and told me that if things got worse that it was our last option. This was the first time anyone had brought up the fact that Kaliah might not make it.
That was the moment I started to shut out everyone around me. I didn’t believe it. “Not make it?” There was no way. This lady was crazy.
We called our families. Within an hour everyone was there.
As the doctors were hooking Kaliah up to do a brain scan they started to panic – she had a very low oxygen level. Her heart and lungs were working too hard. Everything was getting worse fast. Doctors explained about the ECMO machine: it would pump blood out of her body into a machine, put oxygen in the blood, and pump the blood back into her body. Plain and simple it was life support, our very last option.
After three hours of surgery to implant the ECMO machine, I went back in that room to see her. I could barely recognize her. My little girl was swollen everywhere. Her eyes were more puffy then before, she felt like her skin was tight and full, and she was really warm. There were two tubes inserted by her neck and right shoulder.
Still, I knew my baby would pull through. She had to. Now that she was on life support, she didn’t have to do any work. She would gain her strength back.
The next morning the doctor said, “Last night there were some complications with the ECMO machine. Her body is rejecting all the medication. Everything we’re putting in her veins is leaking out into her body - that’s why she’s so swollen. It’s part of the disease, the pertussis. Her chances of survival at this point aren’t good at all.” I began to cry and I held her hand for a long time.
On day nine at the hospital, our entire families visited. Kaliah’s body was turning purple from all the blood and medicines leaking from her veins. It was so hard to see her that way. I tried my hardest to stay strong for her. I kept telling her I loved her, that everything was going to be alright.
We sat in the waiting room for a long time praying she would make it. Four doctors came out to talk to us; they pulled all of us into a room. I remember exactly what they said. “We've all been working very hard on Kaliah, and the machine just keeps cutting out. It’s just not working anymore. There's nothing more we can do to help her, she’s too sick. We are so very sorry.” Everyone in the room was crying, including all the doctors.
The doctors brought our whole family back into Kaliah’s room so we could say our final goodbyes. They sat me and Tanner down on a couch and placed Kaliah in my arms for the last time. She wore striped pajamas with a monkey on the front. She was absolutely beautiful.
I held my sweet baby in my arms, with Tanner beside me; we held her hands. I kissed her on the forehead and told her I loved her so much and she wouldn’t have to fight anymore. Tanner kissed her on the hand and told her he loved her. A few moments later we were doing the hardest thing I think I will ever have to do in my entire life: we watched the doctor take her off life support. Kaliah gasped for breath. We sat there and watched our little girl go. The doctor came in and checked for a heart rate and said, “I’m sorry she’s gone.” He then took her out of my arms. Tanner and I walked out into the waiting room after saying goodbye to our 27-day-old baby girl.
I keep telling myself that God gave me Kaliah for a reason, even if I couldn’t have her forever. I knew that when she passed I would make her live on and share her story to save other babies from this horrible disease. I would not let her die for no reason. She was too beautiful for this earth.
I'm doing my best to educate the world by telling Kaliah’s story. Pertussis, or whooping cough, is very dangerous for infants because they can’t be vaccinated until they're eight weeks old. This means newborns don’t have a fighting chance. The best way to keep the babies safe is to get vaccinated - and the more people are vaccinated, the better it will be.
If you're against vaccination or just aren’t vaccinated, I really hope my little girl’s story changed your mind. Whooping cough spreads very quickly. To protect babies everywhere please get vaccinated.