What happened to me last winter could happen to thousands more people this year, and that’s not good.
I’ve never before heard a cough like the one I had this past December. It was something like the startled bark of a tiny puppy crossed with that puppy’s squeak toy. Or, it was like the highest, most urgent note of a harmonica, not blown-out but inhaled-in quickly. It was an alarming sound, and frankly, it didn’t even seem human.
At first, I thought it was just a bad respiratory infection, a common cold made more challenging by my moderate asthma. By the end of the first week, though, after three trips to the doctor in as many days, I was sure something bigger had happened to me. A chest x-ray didn’t turn up anything obvious, and so I was sent on my way with antibiotics and steroids, and I resigned myself to the couch for a full week.
The cough hardly changed at all, even on the medications the doctor prescribed. It made anyone who heard it shake their heads at me. It made me unquenchably thirsty; I drank 90 ounces of water a day, which is at least five times my normal intake of any liquid. My chest hurt. My stomach hurt. My throat hurt. The insides of my mouth hurt.
After a month, it wasn’t gone, so I went to my doctor again. By then, though the fevers were gone and my energy had improved, my voice felt precarious and ghostly, a craggy sound at best, and at worst, one I couldn’t even guarantee would come out when I opened my mouth to speak. My phone would ring, and I would open my mouth to say “hello,” only to croak out “…lo,” the first syllable lost in in my recent history somewhere, in a time when I could say what I meant.
My doctor sent me to other specialists – my asthma doctor and an ENT. My asthma doctor said she had a suspicion about what had happened and took a blood test. In the meantime, she prescribed more steroids and sent me to the ENT for a closer look at my vocal cords.
When the test came back – five weeks later, after I’d already discovered damage to my vocal cords and begun voice therapy – I wasn’t surprised. What I’d contracted in December was pertussis, also known as “whooping cough.”
Most people, when I tell them I had whooping cough, comment that they thought we vaccinated for that these days. That’s true; it’s part of the DTAP vaccine that our children (including mine, ages 15 and 11) get. In addition, some people get a “booster” of this vaccine as adults – and I did, several years ago, knowing even then that whooping cough and asthma would be a particularly dangerous combination for me.
I admit that all throughout my convalescence, I suspected that whooping cough was the culprit. I’d received letters from the middle and high schools that my daughters attend, alerting me to active cases in both schools. Not far from me were other schools with confirmed pertussis cases. In the southern part of our state: more pertussis. In the northwest: more pertussis. In the middle of all of it, I sat propped on my couch, breathing as shallowly as I could, my lips slightly blue.
I am forty-two years old; I weathered it. I got sick in December, and by mid-April, I could sing a little, again. By mid-May, I went on my first run in six months. Now in June, I am strong enough to realize how lucky I was to get it this year instead of six years ago, when it might have killed my daughter, who had a compromised airway.
Then a friend told me that Illinois — where I live — is facing a vaccine crisis. Below is a story from our local network news:
100,000 unvaccinated children may enter Illinois public schools in the fall, largely because the state’s inability to pass a budget means that doctors aren’t being reimbursed for the cost of vaccines for low-income children. Since even vaccinated children rely on herd immunity to cover them for the small percentage of people for whom the vaccine is not effective, a range that falls between 15 and 20 percent (recall that even with my booster shot, I contracted pertussis), adding 100,000 unprotected children into the germ-ridden environment of school almost ensures a resurgence of vaccine-preventable illnesses. Not discussed above, for example, are 2017 outbreaks of mumps: here and here.
Just listening to the sounds of pertussis makes me shudder. Imagine an elementary school full of them. Now send those kids to your local grocery store, public library, bus stop, or the emergency room of your local hospital. Between 15 and 20 percent of the vaccinated population could get pertussis or mumps from these children — so even if your child isn’t yet school-aged, this problem affects you. Even if you have no children, this problem affects you.
I’m not sure how to end this — since my voice still occasionally fails mid-sound, and since every asthmatic wheeze now sends me into an anxious mental scan to observe how long the next coughing spell might last, I fear that my experience with pertussis will follow me for quite some time. When I send my children back to school in the fall, I am lucky that I have the means to ensure they have the vaccines necessary to give them the best chances. That said, the fight ahead for the state’s low-income families who do not have similar means must naturally become my fight as well, not just to increase herd immunity for my own loved ones but to keep as few people as possible from experiencing this illness.
What to do next?
Illinois residents, our Governor wants to know what you think. Please tell him.
Residents of other states, keep an eye on your own community’s most vulnerable citizens. Ask how you can help ensure everyone has the health care they need. Use 5Calls.org to keep connected to your own representatives and share your feelings on public health.
Take a deep breath – with gratitude because you can — and get to work.