My baby was stolen by a cough

What started as a sniffle ended in tragedy for Catherine and her family

Catherine Hughes, 28, Perth, WA

‘I love you Riley. I can’t wait to meet you.’ My daughter, Olivia, three, kissed my pregnant belly happily.

If she wasn’t talking to my unborn son, Olivia was asking me when her new brother was ‘going to be ready’ – like I was baking a bun!

My hubby Greg, 29, and I had longed for a little boy to add to our family.

The morning of our son’s birth – March 13 2015 – I was giddy with excitement.

Squeezing my hand, Greg supported me throughout the birth, and as Riley came into the world I fell in love.

He was 3.2 kilos with bright blue eyes and a layer of fuzzy blonde hair. Perfect…

Olivia was beyond excited to meet her long-awaited brother. She’d tell her dad and me that Riley was asking for a cuddle, which she’d then happily provide.

Our new bub would lay there making little grunting noises – gaining him the nickname ‘Little Piglet’ from his dad.

Breastfeeding eagerly and staring intently at the faces of all who came to visit, Riley was filled with wonder in those early days.

I loved showing him off to friends and family or relaxing in the sunshine by the river near our home.

On our first family outing to a local park, when Riley was two weeks old, a sense of fulfilment washed over me such as I’d never felt before.

Soon after, while Greg was away in Brisbane for work, I noticed Riley had a sniffle and an occasional cough.

I didn’t think much of it, but Riley became increasingly unsettled, so I took a video of him to show the doctor.

‘He’s fine,’ I was told.

Catherine with newborn baby Riley (Credit: Supplied)

The next night Riley didn’t wake for his feed.

‘How odd,’ I thought. He’d slept for six hours straight.

I wondered if I should be celebrating, not worried, but Greg and I took Riley to the hospital just in case, and he was admitted.

We expected to take our little man home the next day.

If only…

A passing doctor heard Riley spluttering and ordered tests for whooping cough – a highly infectious bacterial illness, passed on when an infected person coughs or sneezes. It eventually leads to a thick build up of mucus in the airways.

Staff didn’t want to take any chances so they began treatment right away.

Though I didn’t know much about whooping cough, I recalled being vaccinated immediately after Olivia was born.

At that time, WA was in the midst of a whooping cough outbreak and we wanted to take all available precautions.

Riley himself was too young to have been vaccinated yet.

He’ll be fine… I told myself.

As it happened, day two of Riley’s hospital stay coincided with our second wedding anniversary.

At worst, Greg and I thought we wouldn’t get to celebrate. But then the unthinkable happened…

Riley’s condition began to deteriorate – rapidly.

By day three, Riley’s cough had developed the characteristic ‘whooping’ sound. His little heart was racing and he was breathing heavily. He had stopped breastfeeding altogether, so the doctors inserted a nasal feeding tube.

Riley’s white blood cell count was way up as his tiny body battled the infection. My heart fell as my boy was given oxygen to help him breathe.

‘It’s going to be all right,’ I said, gripping Greg’s hand.

As day four rolled around, however, reality struck. Riley was diagnosed with severe pneumonia and placed on life support.

Called into a meeting with doctors, we were hit with a bombshell…

‘He might not make it,’ said the doctor.

As I looked at Greg, his face turned white. The seemingly healthy baby we’d brought to hospital four days earlier was slipping away.

Olivia holding Riley before he got sick (Credit: Supplied)

Tears poured down my face. Emotionally drained, that night I headed home, hoping to get some rest.

Hours later, I woke to a frantic call from Greg. ‘You have to come back. It’s Riley…’

His heart rate had skyrocketed and blood transfusions had failed to reduce his drastically high white blood cell count.

At 5am, a doctor offered to have Riley baptised in preparation for the worst.

How had it come to this?

By now, his body was covered by a tangle of tubes, so we baptised him in his bed, placing a white sheet over him rather than a traditional gown.

As he lay there unconscious, I was struck by how angelic Riley looked.

Hours passed in which we tried to will life to stay with our son but later doctors confirmed the worst. Riley wasn’t going to pull through.

As I sat in a big chair next to Riley’s hospital bed with him in my arms, Olivia said a heartbreaking goodbye to her baby brother.

‘I’ll really miss you,’ she told him.

Our parents, who had flown in, also said their farewells.

Then Greg and I were left alone with Riley. Rocking our baby in my arms, we sang him a lullaby – just a silly little song that Greg had made up. It had always soothed Riley.

With tears streaming down my cheeks, we waited.

Gradually his heart rate dropped lower until, finally, it stopped. Feeling the life drain away from our son and hope from my heart, I felt numb.

Riley was just 32 days old.

I’ll never forget the moment that I left that room.

Turning back to see Riley’s tiny body, the longing I felt for my son was a physical pain.

‘Goodbye my beautiful boy,’ I sobbed.

In the weeks since Riley left us, the support we’ve received from strangers has been overwhelming.

And Olivia has been there to lift us up.

Determined not to let Riley’s preventable death be in vain, we launched an online campaign to raise awareness of the need to vaccinate young children, and for adults to get boosters against whooping cough.

Already we’ve achieved so much, with the state governments of WA, NSW and SA now joining Victoria and Queensland in offering free vaccinations to all expectant mothers. It is officially recommended that all women receive the vaccination in their third trimester.

Immunisation for all is the only way we can protect our defenceless bubs.

Riley might have lost his battle but Greg and I will continue his fight.

The immunisation debate

Whooping cough is a highly contagious infection of the respiratory tract.

Children younger than six months are at greatest risk of death. While babies younger than two months cannot be vaccinated, medical evidence suggests vaccinating women late in pregnancy protects infants.

The vaccine is not routinely funded under the National Immunisation Program, however, it is free under some state and territory initiatives.

The ‘anti-vaxxer’ campaigns mean more parents choose not to vaccinate their kids.

But in Canada recently, one ‘anti-vaccination’ mum, Tara Hills, made world headlines after changing her position when all seven of her children caught whooping cough.

‘I set out to prove that we were right and in the process found out how wrong we were,’ she said.

Originally published in that’s life! issue 18 – May 7, 2015

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