Just a cold
When the kids started coughing in mid-March, I figured it was a typical cold doing the rounds through our seven kids (ages 10, 8, 8, 6, 4, 2, & 10 months). It’s not uncommon in our part of Canada to get a late winter cold. We kept going with our quiet homeschooling life and didn’t think much of it. After a week it hadn’t significantly improved. Some of the little ones had a bit of a runny nose. No one had developed a noticeable fever. If anything, it seemed slightly worse. Between coughs, they were fine. I told myself it was probably just one of those colds that has a lasting cough.
Ruling out the possibilities
Another week went by and I was surprised that it wasn’t improving as expected. I Googled a few medical-parenting websites about childhood coughs. I was able to rule out most ordinary colds from the symptoms. It was most likely a virus with a lingering cough, possibly a bacterial infection, OR early stage pertussis (more commonly known as “whooping cough”). I dismissed the latter as they certainly weren’t ‘whooping.’ What kept throwing me for a loop was how fine they were between coughs. After discussing it with my husband, we decided if they weren’t getting better after 3 weeks I would go to our family doctor. More than likely it was just viral and would be visibly improving by then.
Worst case scenario
As Easter Weekend approached, I was growing increasingly uncomfortable. Some of the kids were coughing harder now and some struggling to bring up phlegm. All the websites agreed that a standard cold can last 3-4 weeks and it just needed time. I couldn’t shake the worse-case scenario though. What if THIS was early stage pertussis? I chided myself for being so paranoid. I figured I was spooking myself after staying up too late reading about vaccine-preventable diseases in a recent personal study. I knew then only too well that our kids were dry tinder for them since all seven were seriously under or not vaccinated at all. (We had followed the routine Canadian Immunization schedule until our fourth born was a few months old. The youngest 3 had none.) The week they started coughing I had already booked 3 vaccine catch-up appointments in April for all the kids. I had even written up a personal account of my journey from “Anti-Vax to Pro-Science” on a parenting website called The Scientific Parent. It was set to publish in mid-April and would let family and friends know about our recent “conversion” and maybe help some other readers reconsider the issue of vaccinating their children.
My mom came by that week and commented that the kids’ cold was really lingering. We talked about it casually and she mentioned in passing that I had contracted whooping cough when I was 5. She described how it got to the point that I would bolt to the bathroom to cough for up to a minute struggling to bring up this stringy mucus and finally vomit. She said she had to send me with my dad to the family doctor twice before they did the testing to confirm whooping cough. I have no memory of that time, but she did over 30 years later.
Midnight at the emergency room
Later that night, our 10-month old baby was coughing and starting to gag on his phlegm. I took one last look at the ‘child cough’ sites and noticed that whooping cough symptoms may or MAY NOT be accompanied by a ‘whooping’ sound. That’s when I snapped into “what if” mode. What if I was staring whooping cough in the face? What if THIS is what it looked like and it was just going to get worse, not better? There was only one way to know. At midnight, I headed for the first time in my life to the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario.
Just a virus
The 2 nurses in triage observed him have 2 coughing fits and were not overly concerned, same with the 2 doctors that saw him later. They asked questions and I described everything as I have here. They asked if he was ‘whooping’ or struggling for breath and I said no. They concluded it was most likely a virus. They did a nasal swab to check for bacterial infection just in case and I said would be contacted in 48 hours if positive results.
I asked if I should alter my Easter weekend plans while waiting, and they repeatedly assured me no: to go ahead and enjoy our weekend and change nothing. Their parting words to me were said with a smile as they reassured me to relax because it was more than likely just one of many viruses going around that March in Ottawa.
As dawn approached, I drove home relieved and chiding myself for over-reacting and wasting tax-payers dollars on a totally unnecessary emergency room visit. We enjoyed our weekend with family and friends, never got a call on Saturday, and went on with our lives. Any day now we would see an improvement.
The call came four days later on Tuesday: clinical confirmation of pertussis. I went numb as the phone started ringing off the hook. Ottawa Public Health (OPH) assigned us a personal public health nurse to walk with us through the surreal crisis we were in. Their protocol required that any third trimester pregnant women or infants under 1 year that spent more than 1 hour in a closed area with us be contacted. Only 1 person fit that description, our 5-month old niece. They contacted her family to all start preventative antibiotics. Our whole family would need to start a 5-day round of antibiotics ASAP. The kids would have to be kept in home isolation until they were no longer contagious. We explained to the older kids what was going on. They were happy to hear we would be getting good medicine to help them get better faster. We needed to be weighed at our doctor’s to get precise antibiotic dosages. Everyone wore masks going into the doctor’s building and I kept my eyes low until we were in our private room.
At home we tried to keep a semblance of normal for the kids’ sake. Once they were in bed, we made a few phone calls to alert close family and friends of our situation and give them a heads-up to be on the lookout for any symptoms. That night, I edited the blog post from the context of Day 1 Isolation for all 7 children being treated for whooping cough and it went live ahead of schedule. We had been due to start our catch-up schedule that week. The timing was painful. As mortifying as our situation was, we chose to share it beyond our private circles to hopefully help others who related to our prior anti-vaccination stance. So, I posted the link to my Facebook page and tried to get some sleep.
OPH had told us the next few days would be rough but we should see a turn within a few days of antibiotics. It would stop getting worse. We knew we would be fine, all things considered. But we had to wait to see if any high-risk people, like our niece or anyone else in our circles, would be more seriously (even devastatingly) affected. That wait was one of the hardest of my life.
Riding it out
The next few days were rough. Gavin took the week off work to stay home with me to take care of the kids while we went through the health department’s 5 days of required isolation. Over that Easter Weekend we had been entering the pertussis “Paroxysmal Stage” (intense, sometimes violent coughing) and things were picking up fast. Most of the kids were coughing harder and longer now and gagging on the clear stringy phlegm. The youngest ones had the hardest time as they coughed and couldn’t bring up the stringy mucus. We tried to almost pull it out of their mouths as we wiped their faces to make it easier. Then the vomiting started. Some would cough so long and hard they would just bring everything up. They were so tired of coughing and throwing up some would just cry after each episode. The nights weren’t as bad as the days. They were able to stay asleep through most of the coughing. Only the baby needed help with his coughs. We had to sit him up and pat his back to help him through some rough patches. No one ever went into respiratory distress but it got tense there a few times. We kept buckets and boxes of tissue in every room and just rode it out as best we could.
Emotionally, I was on a rollercoaster of stress compounded by little sleep. Waves of fear, shame, guilt, and anger kept washing over me and I had to really focus my head and heart to keep it together. My husband was more level, but after a week the stress caught up with him, after what happened next.
Going viral worldwide
What made things even harder was the additional shock and stress of my post going ‘viral.’ The phone started going off the hook again as news outlets all over the world starting hounding us for interviews. Closer to home, some horrible misinformation and hateful slander was circulating in our formerly close-knit community. I forced myself to eat for the sake of my nursing baby. Our stress was going through the roof, but we hung in there confident that sharing our story was helping others. Some people said horrible things, but most people were amazingly gracious, kind, and helpful. I had to choose to focus on the positive because everything was so surreal and stressful. My husband and I did our best to keep calm and smile for the kids’ sake. I cried in private every day for the next two weeks.
Ray of sunshine
Within a few days we noticed the vomiting starting to ease up. It was like a ray of sunshine after a long storm. We knew everything would be okay. Our niece was doing well and the spread seemed to be contained. The media blitz was finally slacking off and I was coming to terms with the price we paid by going public with our personal story. I still wince when people recognize me in public and have to push through painful self-consciousness. No matter. Good things have, and still are, coming from it all. The kids are in the process of getting all caught up on their vaccinations and handling it emotionally and physically really well.
The coughing in our family lasted for about 12 weeks and, thankfully, all of our kids have recovered well. Some people have made light of what we went through saying since all’s well that ends well there really isn’t much concern about whooping cough. Our experience with whooping cough was mild compared to others. Had things been slightly different, it could have been so much worse for us and others. The spread could have been greater during the time we didn’t know our children were contagious and more at-risk people exposed. Our baby could have been 2 months rather than 10 months. It could have been diphtheria, or worse. The reality is, people still suffer terrible damage or die of whooping cough in North America—especially young infants. We made it through alright. Not everyone does. I can only hope that sharing our personal experience will be helpful to others so they never have to go through any degree of this or any other vaccine preventable illness.
You can read Tara’s original blog post My Journey From #Antivaxx to Science on www.theScientificParent.org
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