Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

My story: Insights learned from whooping cough April 16, 2020


The gravestone of Deloris Edna Emilie Bode, my aunt who died of highly-contagious whooping cough at age nine months. A great aunt, Ida, also died of pertussis at the same age. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.



In the summer of 2005, when I was 48, I came down with what I initially thought was a bad cold. Turns out the horrific sore throat, followed by the equally horrific cough, was actually whooping cough. After three doctor’s visits and a misdiagnosis of bronchitis, I was correctly diagnosed with pertussis, the first case my physician had ever seen in his longtime career.

When he informed me that pertussis is also known as the 100-day cough, he was not joking. I was racked by uncontrollable fits of coughing from around July Fourth until well after Labor Day.

For me, the summer of 2005 was spent languishing on the couch, feeling like absolute crap, exhausted from lack of sleep (ever try sleeping when you are constantly coughing), utterly worn down, unable to barely function.

The worst, and I mean absolute worst, moment came when I awoke one night gasping for air, my windpipe narrowed. In retrospect, that asthmatic type attack warranted a 911 call and I now consider myself fortunate to have survived. Yes, it was that bad and necessitated another visit to the doctor for a regiment of the inflammation reducing steroid prednisone and an inhaler.

I don’t know why I experienced a particularly bad case of whooping cough. Typically the young and elderly are most harshly affected. Unvaccinated infants can even die.

Nor do I know how I got a disease I thought had vanished decades ago and which claimed the life of my Aunt Deloris in 1935 at nine months old. My doctor speculated that I could have been exposed waiting in the check-out line at the grocery store. I’ll never know.



Why do I share this experience, which I first blogged about in 2010? I reblog this because it’s a very real example of how easily I became infected with a highly-contagious bacterial disease simply by being out and about in public. To this day, I have no idea where I picked up whooping cough and then passed it along to two family members. Since then, I’ve learned that the vaccine for pertussis, a serious respiratory tract infection, wears off and re-vaccination is needed.

When I consider how ill I became from whooping cough at age 48, I can only guess how the much more serious COVID-19 might affect me 15 years later at age 63. I recognize the two differ—one is bacterial, the other viral, for example, with many other differences. But some similarities.

Having contracted pertussis via community spread illustrates and underscores the importance of social distancing, of staying at home, of recognizing how quickly and easily the highly-contagious and potentially deadly COVID-19 virus can spread.



I shop at the grocery store weekly because, you know, I eat. I’ve seen too many people who don’t seem to care about social distancing. I can tell right away. They hog the aisle, don’t move over, come too close. In all fairness, many people are being safe, careful and respectful and I appreciate that.

While en route to the grocery store or to a park (about the only places I go now days), I’ve observed groups of obviously unrelated people chatting, even leaning into car windows. No social distancing. I’ve seen landscapers clustered around the back of a pick-up truck.

I recognize that we live in a free country and that people will make choices that are unwise, unsafe and not in the best interests of their health. But when those decisions affect the health of the general public, it’s different. We are all aware that COVID-19 is highly-contagious, even deadly. Every single one of us ought to care because our lives, and the lives of those we love, of our friends, our neighbors and, yes, even the woman in the grocery store, depend on us caring. Whether we live in New York or Minnesota, this virus does not distinguish between rural and urban. No one is immune.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


16 Responses to “My story: Insights learned from whooping cough”

  1. A little care and kindness go a long way. We had a not so nice encounter as we walked around our neighborhood park yesterday. Putting everyone into unsafe conditions is not common sense let alone common courtesy. Together is how we will get through this time. Be Safe and Take Care Everyone

  2. Littlesundog Says:

    In the last seven weeks, Forrest and I have been to Walmart and the farm store twice. The farm store is never all that busy so no worries there and they are great to let me phone in my chicken feed order, pay by phone, and I pull up and they load the bags. Easy peasy. At Walmart we decided the first trip to go during the “senior citizen” hours (Forrest just turned 60) from 6:00 to 7:00 am. It was horrible – people everywhere and not everyone keeping distance. The second trip I went alone at normal opening time which is 7:00 am. Much less traffic and people were courteous and polite. Employees were continually cleaning and stocking, stepping aside for customers. Next time I have to go, I will just do my usual early morning trip.

    I have had some bad respiratory issues in my life too – most of my siblings have as well. I try not to worry about it, but like you, it’s always on my mind that respiratory difficulty would be the one weakness I have with this COVID-19. It’s also disappointing to see other’s who are careless or do not completely understand the seriousness of this pandemic – especially young people. I often think until we have an experience that brings understanding, we often walk around in ignorance. Unfortunately, we can’t really help others “get it”. I also remind myself that I was young once too, and thought I was invincible.

    • Thanks for the tip on Walmart. I’ve not been there in weeks.

      You’re right that people often don’t understand something until they’ve experienced it firsthand. But a pandemic? The word should be enough to elicit respect. And the worldwide death…

      • Littlesundog Says:

        You and I would have taken it serious as kids, because we respected our parents and we minded authority. We live in a different world today.

      • That seems an accurate assessment, Lori.

        Unfortunately, we lost a local pastor to complications of COVID-19 yesterday. The Rev. Craig Breimhorst returned from the Holy Land in mid March and, the next day, came down with coronavirus symptoms and tested positive. Two weeks after, just as he told his wife he thought he had turned the corner, he developed even more severe symptoms and was airlifted to a metro area hospital and eventually was placed on a ventilator. He served as a pastor at Christ Lutheran in Faribault for 30 years and was currently serving as a part-time pastor at Trinity Lutheran in West Concord. Pastor Breimhorst was the first diagnosed COVID case in our county of Rice. My heart breaks for his family, including his faith family.

  3. Whooping cough is sooooo horrid! What a scary time for you and I’m sure your family. I’m glad you came through that ok. Just hoping everyone stays smart and safe.

  4. Walter Says:

    For many decades the idea of epidemics was far from our thoughts. But not always this way.
    My father was affected by the polio epidemic in the 1930s and kept the sequel in one of his legs in his life. One of my sisters suffered whooping cough and fortunately overcame it.
    Reading your post I remembered the old prayers when there were news of epidemics. The plagues were always stalking humanity, but we had forgotten it.
    As always to writing is interesting.
    Greeting and good health to you.

  5. valeriebollinger Says:

    Wow, what a story and how difficult it must have been for you…so thankful you recovered.

    • It was quite the experience.

      • Gunny Says:

        At least to doctors finally got your diagnosis right!

        As a young child I got exposed to something and became kinda sorta like a pariah. It was so bad, I missed 6 months out of a school year of 9 months. Took me years and a repeat of a grade to ALMOST overcome that lack of an education.

        My worst nightmare came true when something hit me that felt like someone had closed the throttle on my carburetor (throat). I ended up with what they called “walking pneumonia”. I could not breath and dropped like a sack of potatoes. The next time that happened (dropped like a sack of potatoes), I passed out. My appendix was starting to rupture!

        About the end of last year I was walking a cemetery and noted a lot of graves marked that the people buried there died of Cholera. (1867). The Spanish Flu took many, many lives during the early twentieth century. Death stalks us all. It will eventually win but we don’t have to make it easy. My respects and condolences for the loss of your beloved minister.

      • It sounds like you’ve been through a lot, Gunny, especially with that childhood illness. So you understand.

        Next time I visit a cemetery, I will look more closely for deaths caused by epidemics. I’ve always found gravestones interesting, for art, history and more. And now I have one more point to consider.

        Thank you for your condolences to our community at the loss of Pastor Craig Breimhorst.

  6. Ruth Says:

    You are so right. No one is immune. Thank you for sharing your story from the archives. Very timely.

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