Baby whooping cough death: One mother's story

Just weeks old, perfect little Dana was tragically taken from her family

When moving to the Northern Rivers region of New South Wales to raise our family in its pristine environment, we had no idea about the area’s dangerously low vaccination rates – or the devastating effect they would have on us.

We were so happy to fall pregnant with our third child there. I had a healthy pregnancy, doing everything by the book, like taking folic acid and avoiding high-risk foods, and Dana was born just perfect, a beautiful, healthy baby. She was breastfed, we followed SIDS guidelines, everything was fine.

Just a small cough

At 11 days old, Dana had a blocked nose and was unsettled at night, so I took her to the doctor and was told just to get some saline drops. Our two older kids had colds at the time, so I didn’t worry too much.

By the time she was three weeks old, Dana had developed a tiny cough, like a clearing of her throat, and at night she was really distressed. One night she even seemed to have apnoea. But when we’d see the doctor during the day she’d be fine, which I later learnt is common with whooping cough.

Ultimately the doctor had her tested for bronchiolitis and also pertussis (whooping cough). This was the first time the disease had even been mentioned to me. The next day the GP rang and said the test was positive for whooping cough.

At this point Dana was still fine, but when she started to produce mucus in her mouth we drove straight to the hospital, a 40-minute trip. When we got there, Dana had her first true ‘whooping’ cough where she actually turned blue and stopped breathing. They put her straight on oxygen.

I remember the nurse being as calm as anything, saying yes, this was classic whooping cough.

We expected the staff to give Dana antibiotics to help her, but were stunned to learn there is no treatment to stop the coughing; that the antibiotics were just to prevent her infecting someone else.
We just had to watch in horror as the disease took its course. I spent the night with Dana while Dave went home with our other children, because as well as being on antibiotics we all had to be quarantined.

From bad to worse

Dana coughed uncontrollably all night.

It was so awful. She couldn’t draw a breath and went every shade of blue. There were two nurses full-time in the room with us, but all they could do was keep the oxygen up during these episodes until she came to again.

After such a horrible night, Dana woke the next morning seeming bright.

But her throat was so irritated from the coughing she had to be fed my milk through a tube that went in her nose and down to her tummy. She was also given fluid via a drip and was placed in an oxygen head box to breathe pure oxygen – by this stage of the disease, that’s really all that can be done to treat it.

The paediatrician told us that when Dana could recover from her episodes without oxygen we could go home, but that she’d continue having coughing attacks for up to 100 days and there may be possible respiratory complications.

This is what happens with babies who survive whooping cough; but Dana took a turn for the worse and by her fourth day in hospital, she had developed pneumonia.

Dana had to be intubated and put on a ventilator in order to be taken by helicopter to Brisbane Mater Children’s Hospital. It turns out two other newborns had also been airlifted in the two previous weeks and we were in the midst of an epidemic.

Dana’s siblings, James and Aisling, only had a few precious weeks with their baby sister

I was actually relieved that Dana was being put in intensive care at a major hospital, thinking everything would be okay. There she was attached to lots of machines and I had to wait while she was cared for by two nurses, a registrar and a paediatric specialist.

The intensive care team monitored her and suctioned out her lungs and nose. She was stable, but they thought we would be there for at least a week-and-a-half. But the next morning, Dana’s blood pressure plummeted. Her case of whooping cough had taken an unexpected and deadly turn.

In what seemed an instant, our little girl had an aggressive reaction to the bacteria’s toxin, which attacked her heart and immune system. The doctors said she had a 50 per cent chance of survival.
I phoned Dave to get him to drive up.

The medical staff consulted experts all over the world. We had two options: a risky flight to Melbourne for Dana to be put on a heart-lung bypass machine, which she may not survive, or a double blood transfusion, which had worked in a case in Chile. We chose the latter.

But the bacteria blocked every drug or treatment the team of specialists could throw at it. We were powerless to save Dana. After nearly 10 hours of desperate blood transfusions, her beautiful heart stopped beating and she let out her last sweet breath.

It was preventable

The only thing that could have saved Dana was preventing her catching the disease in the first place. While our other children had been vaccinated, she was too young. And because our area has low childhood vaccination rates – and since immunisation wanes over time, so most adults are no longer protected – the disease was allowed to swirl around the community and reach our new baby girl.
We were inconsolable as we left Dana in the hospital morgue and drove home with an empty baby capsule, weeping as we remembered her trusting eyes pleading for help.

Our hearts just broke when our six-year-old son later helped carry Dana’s tiny pink coffin from the church after her funeral. And when our children ask why their sister died, we falter, because it was completely preventable.


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