I Lost My Baby to Whooping Cough

One woman shares how she lost her one-month-old baby to whooping cough and why she advocates for the pertussis vaccine during pregnancy.

Baby Riley Hughes Whooping CoughCourtesy Catherine Hughes

Whooping cough in babies

Pertussis is a highly contagious illness caused by Bordetella pertussis bacteria. It’s also known as whooping cough due to the primary symptom, a severe cough that causes a person to make a whooping noise as they struggle to breath.  Early symptoms include a runny nose, fever, and a slight cough. Over time, these symptoms worsen and may eventually include exhaustion, sleep problems, and coughing fits that can be so severe they cause vomiting. There is a whooping cough vaccine available that is very effective in preventing the disease. People of any age can get the disease, but it’s more likely to cause serious illness or death in children and babies. Catherine Hughes of Perth, Australia, shares the heartbreaking story of losing her infant son, Riley, who was too young to be vaccinated, to whooping cough.  For more information on the vaccine, check out this explainer on when to get prenatal booster shots. And for suggestions for how you can help, visit Hughes’s nonprofit, Light for Riley.

A whooping cough diagnosis

One day before Valentine’s Day in 2015, our little love, Riley Hughes, was born. He was our second child, and my husband, Greg, and I were thrilled to welcome him into our family. Little did we know that his stay with us would be all too brief.

At first, we thought his symptoms were just a mild cold. He had a runny nose and a slight cough but nothing out of the realm of normal.

We called a doctor to come to check on him and were assured everything was fine.

We began to really worry when he slept through the night rather than waking every two hours to breastfeed like he usually did. (Unusual fatigue is one of the symptoms of whooping cough.)

The next morning, we took him to the children’s hospital in Perth, Western Australia, where they admitted him. At first, they thought it was bronchiolitis, but fairly quickly they realized it might be whooping cough. A quick swab test confirmed their suspicions.

Treatment for an infant

For four days, they treated his symptoms, giving him intravenous (IV) antibiotics and oxygen to help him breathe. Then he developed pneumonia. They moved him to the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU) and put him on life support.

The next 24 hours were the kind of nightmare that no parent should have to endure. We watched our tiny baby go through painful treatments and we were unable to help him. Still, I had some hope.

I remember looking at the wall of “PICU graduates,” photos of happy, healthy kids who had survived their time in the PICU. I thought about the photo we’d send in of Riley once he was all better, once he learned to smile.

The worst 24 hours of my life

My hope was shattered when, after returning from a short rest, I encountered a social worker outside his room.

She asked me if I wanted my baby to be baptized. As I chose a blanket and christening gown, it hit me that they have these supplies on hand because some babies never leave the intensive care. And it was possible that Riley would be one of them.

The doctors told us that while they weren’t giving up hope or stopping treatment, his heart and lungs were failing because the toxins from pertussis and subsequent pneumonia were ravaging his body. We needed to prepare ourselves.

My husband and I held each other, but there was no comfort to be found. My whole world was crumbling. We decided that we didn’t want him to die alone and in pain in a hospital bed and that we’d spend every minute with him that we could.

Despite receiving the best medical care available, over the next hours he grew steadily worse, and it became clear that he wasn’t going to recover.

On March 17, we brought our then 3-year-old daughter to say goodbye to the brother she’d barely met. Then they told us it was time, unhooked him from the machines, and handed our baby back to us.

So we told him how much we loved him. And then Riley passed away in my arms, just 32 days old.

He didn’t have to die

One of the hardest parts of this experience has been recognizing that it didn’t have to be this way.

As he lay dying, I learned that the United Kingdom, United States, Belgium, and New Zealand already recommended that a pertussis vaccine be given in the third trimester of pregnancy.

Children aren’t able to receive their first dose of the vaccine until they are six weeks to two months old. This maternal vaccine provides vital immune coverage during that critical window between birth and two months, because a vaccinated mother can pass protective antibodies to the baby.

It works. Since the introduction of this prenatal vaccine, the United Kingdom has seen a reduction in infant deaths from pertussis of over 90 percent.

Two days after Riley’s death, the Australian state government announced a similar program in which people who are pregnant could get the pertussis vaccine booster free of charge.

Now all states and territories in Australia have free whooping cough booster shots available during pregnancy.

It only works if you use it

To get the protection, people first have to know about the vaccine and choose to get it.

Many people around the world simply don’t know about this option. And there’s a lot of misinformation about vaccines, which can cause some people to be hesitant about getting it.

So I’ve made it my life’s mission to encourage and educate people about the prenatal pertussis vaccine.

Childhood vaccination does not begin when the child is six weeks old. It begins during pregnancy.

In addition, anybody who has close, regular contact with a newborn also needs to make sure they are up to date on their vaccinations. (Here are other pertussis precautions you can take.)

The painful truth is that if I had been offered a whooping cough booster during pregnancy, there is a good chance Riley would still be with us today. He’s gone, but one way I can honor his memory is to help make sure other parents and babies don’t suffer like we did.

—As told to Charlotte Hilton Andersen


Charlotte Hilton Andersen
Charlotte Hilton Andersen, MS, is an award-winning journalist, author, and ghostwriter who for nearly two decades has covered health, fitness, parenting, relationships, and other wellness and lifestyle topics for major outlets, including Reader’s Digest, O, The Oprah Magazine, Women’s Health, and many more. Charlotte has made appearances with television news outlets such as CBS, NBC, and FOX. She is a certified group fitness instructor in Denver, where she lives with her husband and their five children.