A Whooping Cough Story

Craig and Katie Van Tornhout wanted nothing more than a younger sibling for their son, Cole. After five years of miscarriages, Katie finally gave birth to a baby girl, whom they named Callie Grace. Callie was born six weeks early, but was strong and healthy. In January 2010, one-month old Callie developed a strange, dry cough.

Katie took her to the pediatrician, who gave the baby a checkup but found no real signs of illness and sent the family home. Over the next few days, Callie’s coughing continued, she wasn’t eating and she seemed lethargic, so her parents took her back to the doctor. During the visit, Callie suddenly stopped breathing. She was rushed to the hospital where doctors performed a variety of tests. Callie eventually regained her breathing and color and her parents were hopeful she would recover. But that Friday night, Callie again stopped breathing. Family members watched from behind a glass wall as a team of doctors and nurses performed CPR. Callie could not be saved. She was only 38 days old.

Days later, tests and the coroner’s report confirmed that Callie had died of acute pertussis pneumonia. The diagnosis shocked the family as they had taken care to keep Callie in the house and away from family and friends to protect her from sickness. In recent years, pertussis (also known as whooping cough) cases have increased, especially in northern Indiana, where Callie and her family lived. The DTaP vaccine (pediatric diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis vaccine) is given to babies as a series of shots starting at 2 months, 4 months, 6 months, between 15 and 18 months and between 4 and 6 years of age.

As a result of the upsurge in whooping cough cases, the CDC now recommends that pregnant women receive a Tdap vaccine (adult tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis vaccine) in the third trimester of every pregnancy to protect their newborns until they can complete their own pertussis vaccination series. Since evidence shows that in 85% of the cases infants get whooping cough from immediate and extended family members and caregivers, all family members and caregivers of young children should also be vaccinated at least two weeks prior to a newborn’s arrival.

Despite their heartache, the Van Tornhouts hope that sharing their story might help other parents learn about pertussis and the importance of immunizing children and family members. Katie and her family have conducted numerous television and print interviews and have appeared at many local and national events discussing Callie’s story.

Since Callie’s passing, the Van Tornhouts have welcomed three healthy babies. Katie and Craig ensured that their teenage son, family members and friends were all up-to-date with their Tdap vaccination prior to meeting each of their new babies. Katie was relieved to know that her Tdap vaccination during the third trimester of each pregnancy would protect her precious babies as well.

Callie’s story in her mother Katie’s words

On January 24, I noticed Callie had a soft, dry cough. It sounded like when a child mimics their parent to get attention. It really sounded fake, but being a first time overprotective mom, I called the doctor on Monday and took her to be looked at. The doctor looked her over and said she was healthy and that the cough would just run its course. Nothing more, nothing less. So I said okay, and we went on our way. Tuesday, her cough was much the same, but Callie seemed more tired than usual. Tuesday evening she slept through the night. When we got up Wednesday, she was pale and lethargic. We tried to feed her but she didn’t eat much. Not typical for her since she normally ate 2oz every 3 hours on the hour. She liked her feedings!

So I called the doctor and we had an appointment at 11:30 am. The nurse came in to check her over and we waited for the doctor. While waiting to see the doctor, I was holding Callie and when I went to shift her, she wasn’t breathing. I yelled for the nurse who came rushing in and took her from my arms. She shook Callie and then pounded on her chest. Callie came back on her own. They blamed it on apnea. They called 911 and the paramedics took Callie and me to the ER by ambulance.

In the ER, nurses and doctors flocked to our room. It was truly overwhelming. I was scared and Callie was screaming. (Normally Callie was very quiet, and always a happy baby). They admitted Callie to the PICU under the care of two of the best doctors in the nation.

She was admitted on a Wednesday afternoon and they treated her for a viral infection. They hooked her up to an IV so she was getting fluids. They wouldn’t allow her to eat because at this point, they weren’t sure if she was having a reflux problem or anything. So they just watched and monitored her. Craig and I never left her side. We spent the first night in the Ronald McDonald Room there at the hospital, the other two nights we stayed in her room with her.

Thursday she was still doing okay. She was alert and would smile. She kept sticking her feet up in the air so we could rub them for her… oh how she LOVED to have her feet rubbed!! So cute.

Friday came and during a vitals check, they told us they were going to start treating her for a bacterial infection. They started antibiotics. Since Callie’s cough had gotten a little worse, they wanted to sedate her and put her on a ventilator before they did a spinal tap to rule out meningitis. They also wanted to insert a PICC line into her arm for giving her fluids.?I gave my consent and they did these things. They finished up around 7 pm that Friday. We went back into her room to be by her side. Granted she was sedated, but she still had her spunky personality. She would still smile from time to time and she knew we were there. She’d even “smile” with her eyes when we’d rub her head. She was amazing.

My mother had been there with us most of the day and around 10: 15 pm she headed home. Before she left she talked to the doctor and he told her Callie would be fine, just needed to have the infection run its course and she’d be better. We never felt like her life was in danger. The whole staff was very calm and never a sense of urgency or panic.

At 11 pm, a respiratory therapist came into the room to give Callie a breathing treatment. She never explained the treatment and I was kind of curious. But I figured she knew what she was doing. She was looking at Callie’s vent and noticed the tubes were “tangled” so she unhooked her to untangle them. When they had unhooked Callie earlier, they had bagged her with manual vent but this time, they didn’t. This drew a red flag for me but again, but I figured she knew what she was doing.

Once she got Callie hooked back up, within 10 minutes the nurse came rushing in because Callie’s stats were dropping. It was then they asked us to leave the room. Every nurse on the floor came rushing into Callie’s room, and we knew it wasn’t good. We called our parents to come up and be with us. We still at this point, didn’t think we’d lose her.

The doctor came running and said he’d fill us in once he assessed the situation.?The resident doctor came to us and told us “it’s not good” in a cold bitter tone. Not overly comforting. A short while later our families joined us and then a Chaplain from the hospital came up to talk to us. She claimed she speaks with families during good and bad times and at that point we knew it wasn’t going to be anything good. We walked back to Callie’s room and stood outside watching as they performed CPR. My father never left her doorway. They worked on her for 45 minutes until they pronounced her at 1:12 am on January 30. The worst day of my life.

The doctors that night told us she passed from respiratory failure and cardiac arrest.

On Monday, February 1, the doctor called the house and told us the test for pertussis came back positive. It was heartbreaking to hear but at least we had a cause. We wondered, however, where she got it from? She was only five weeks old and never went anywhere except to see her doctor. Could she have caught it while in NICU for 12 days after her birth? They say it takes 7 to 21 days to incubate before you notice symptoms, so in all honesty, she could have caught in the NICU.

They did an autopsy on her and we got the report last week. It stated the cause of death was acute pertussis pneumonia. I am still waiting on the coroner to provide me with his summary report.

We have lots and lots and lots of questions still unanswered. We’re waiting to get her full medical record to understand more. She was clearly our miracle baby. It took us 5 years to get her and they took her after only 5 weeks. I had suffered 4 miscarriages prior to getting pregnant with Callie. So to have her, it was truly a miracle.

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