Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

A closer look at whooping cough, including my story August 17, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 7:19 AM
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FIVE YEARS AGO, I earned the distinction of becoming my physician’s first adult whooping cough patient in his 30-plus year career.

I still remember that day when I perched on the examining table, so exhausted from my coughing fits and a subsequent lack of sleep that I could barely function. Five weeks earlier my doctor had diagnosed bronchitis. When I wasn’t getting any better, I returned and he gave me the same diagnosis. But now, on this third visit with my condition steadily deteriorating, I wanted answers.

Then I coughed.

For my doctor, that was a profound moment. He didn’t even hesitate. “I think you have whooping cough,” he blurted, then soon left the room to consult with another physician.

I don’t recall exactly how I responded, but I remember thinking that whooping cough couldn’t possibly exist in 2005.

How very wrong I was about that assumption. Today, five years after I struggled with this debilitating illness that invaded my lungs and throat, causing persistent coughing fits, a severe sore throat, asthmatic type attacks and a resulting inability to sleep, the disease continues to infect, and even kill.

California, if trends continue, is expecting more pertussis (whooping cough) cases in 2010 than it’s seen in 50-plus years, according to the California Department of Public Health. As of August 10, those numbers stood at 2,774 reported cases, including seven deaths among infants. The cases represent a seven-fold increase from the 395 reported during the same period in 2009.

Naturally, I wondered how Minnesota compares. According to statistics from the Minnesota Department of Health, as of July 16, there had been 395 cases reported. The report notes that the state is near the end of an outbreak that began in 2008.

In my home county, Rice, three cases of the disease have been recorded in 2010. The majority of infections are, as I would expect, in the more heavily-populated counties of Hennepin (75 cases), Wright (60), Dakota (52) and Ramsey (40).

But statistics really don’t matter if you’re the one with whooping cough. I remember the follow-up phone call from my physician who delivered the news that pertussis is known as “the 100-day cough.” He wasn’t kidding.

And he wasn’t kidding that he really couldn’t do anything for me. The disease would have to run its course—for me from early July until after Labor Day—and my body would need to heal on its own. Antibiotics help only early on in either preventing whooping cough or diminishing the severity of a case. The pertussis bacteria die off naturally after three weeks of coughing.

My entire family received a regiment of antibiotics with my husband and my second daughter both developing whooping cough, albeit much milder than mine.

Whooping cough, I can undeniably tell you, should be taken seriously. If you are an adult, or a teen, and haven’t been vaccinated since childhood, listen up. By age 10 or 12, you are no longer protected by that childhood vaccine. I was 48 years old when I developed pertussis. I’ll never know how I contracted the disease, but it’s highly-contagious. Infants are especially vulnerable.

Ironically, in the same year I became ill, new vaccines for adolescents and adults were approved. With widespread immunization, pertussis can become an illness of the past.

Within my own family, whooping cough claimed the life of my Aunt Deloris. On May 10, 1935, Deloris Edna Emilie Bode, second-born daughter of Lawrence and Josephine, died of pertussis, pneumonia and a gangrene-type infection of the mouth at the age of nine months and nine days.

Whenever I think of Deloris, I nearly weep at the thought of that beautiful baby girl wracked with uncontrollable coughing fits, struggling to breathe, fighting to live. I will feel forever linked to her by whooping cough, the 100-day cough, and today a preventable disease.

(The national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has designated August as National Immunization Awareness Month.)

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


4 Responses to “A closer look at whooping cough, including my story”

  1. Gordon Says:

    Great story from a really bad experience. I had no idea whooping cough was still a threat. I’ll be talking to my doctor about it soon.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      I would guess you’re not alone, Gordon. Most people likely have the misconception that a childhood whooping cough vaccine protects us for life. Not so.

      I was never as sick in my life as when I suffered from pertussis. Thinking back, I likely should have been rushed to the emergency room several times when I was struggling to breathe during severe asthmatic attacks. Nearly three months of my life were consumed by this disease.

  2. Kristin Says:

    My brother was diagnosed with whooping cough a couple of years ago, but I swear it was his roommate at the hospital. They took him, my brother, out of quarantine for meningitis and put him in a room with a man who never stopped coughing. Scott’s lucky he didn’t get far more sick, just sleepless.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      I would say that Scott is one fortunate man not to have contracted whooping cough on top of meningitis. What were those hospital staff members thinking?

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