Surge in whooping cough: A mother's heartbreaking loss

Published: Aug. 10, 2017 at 1:19 PM EDT
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Imagine having five miscarriages, only to have your sixth child -- your firstborn baby -- die when she was 37 days old because she was exposed to a disease that is completely preventable.

Sadly, it's the tragic reality a South Bend couple faced seven years ago, and now that whooping cough cases are surging again in Indiana, they want to share their heartbreaking story and plea for everyone to get vaccinated against pertussis.

Pertussis, or whooping cough, is a highly contagious bacterial infection. It killed Callie, who was too young to be vaccinated.

“'Miracle baby' we dubbed her," her mother, Katie Court Van Tornhout, recalls. "She came on Christmas Eve, and she was this four-pound, five-ounce peanut. She was perfect.”

Callie was born prematurely because Katie was suffering from preeclampsia, so she spent 12 days in the neonatal intensive care until she gained some weight and went home with her mom, dad and stepbrother. “She got to come home on January 5th, and we were finally a family of four.”

But their joy was short-lived. “She got sick. It was January 24th, we were sitting on the couch and she coughed,” Katie says.

Katie and her husband, Craig, took Callie to the doctor. They were told that she should be better soon, but Katie says Callie stopped eating, so they went back to the doctor. “I was holding her on my chest, waiting for the doctor to come in, and I pulled her down to look at her and she was blue, she wasn't breathing. I screamed and Craig screamed. They took her from me and they are beating on her back, a hard beat, and she came back and giggled,” Katie remembers.

An ambulance rushed Callie to the hospital. “They were putting IV's in her head and taking blood. She tried to cough again when we got in there, and again she turned blue.”

Doctors intubated Callie to help her breathe, but they still weren't sure what was wrong. Within hours Katie says the doctors gave the couple unimaginable news. “The doctor said 'We can't do anything else for you.' We went from hunkering down for the weekend to 'she's going to be gone,' and at 1:17 a.m. she was gone.”

Gone at just 37 days old with no diagnosis, Katie and Craig didn’t want to leave their daughter. “We spent three hours in her hospital room, singing to her, rubbing her feet.” Callie loved having her feet rubbed.

Katie and her husband were leaving for Callie's visitation when they finally found out what killed their little angel. “I was leaving, the CDC, Centers for Disease Control, called me and said that they did get the test results and it was confirmed pertussis, so it took 72 hours to get those tests back, and it was whooping cough.”

Too young to be vaccinated, how did Callie catch whooping cough? Katie explains, “An adult around her, whether it was the hospital, one of us, more than likely the hospital because she spent most of her time there for the first day of life.”

It was a death that Katie says could have been prevented if that adult had the Tdap vaccine. The vaccine guards against tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis. Kids begin getting a series of five shots beginning at 2 months of age and boosters again between 4 and 6. The CDC also recommends teens and adults, and especially parents, grandparents and child care providers, receive a booster.

Katie has taken it a step further, saying everyone -- especially health care workers -- should be required to get boosters. She has taken that fight by testifying before lawmakers at the Indiana State House. “Senate Bill 152, and the Senate passed it 50 to 0, which was incredible on the first try.”

The house tabled it, but Katie is not giving up. “We're going to try again this winter.”

Katie also speaks at health conferences nationwide, and in 2015 the CDC honored her with their Champion Award.

In honor of Callie, she has stuffed 4,000 toiletry bags for other parents with hospitalized babies, including a note with Callie's story. She sends them to hospitals nationwide.

It helped Katie and Craig to heal. Then, almost miraculously, Katie found out she was pregnant just months after Callie's death. Her due date was the same as Callie's birthdate. “Her due date was Christmas Eve, and at that point I said to mom, ‘This is her gift to me. This is how I know we're going to be okay.’ “

Katie, now the mother of four beautiful children, will not give up the fight for her firstborn.

She firmly believes Callie caught whooping cough from a health care worker who hadn't had a booster. “I'm her voice. She doesn't have a voice, she's not here, and part of me left when she died. It's like my heart is still broken. Every ounce of my being misses her.”

With a cast of Callie's feet -- a gift from the hospital -- Katie says she and her husband still tuck Callie in for bed the only way they can. “Every night we rub her feet before we go to bed.”

Her plea to all of us is to call your doctor or health department and get a Tdap booster. “It's important, it could save a life. It could have saved hers.”

Katie has started a non-profit called Callie Cares. She is hoping to advance her mission on vaccinations and boosters for pertussis and to give back to those who were there for them when Callie died.

For more information, visit the Callie Cares Facebook page at