One family’s story puts a face on whooping cough epidemic

LAKE STEVENS — In July, just 18 days after the birth of her first grandchild, Amy Anderson looked at the infant’s face and was alarmed by what she saw.

“She looked horrible … pale and weak,” Anderson said.

Then she spotted a bluish tint around the infant’s eyes.

“Oh my God, that means she isn’t getting oxygen,” Anderson said. “We need to get her to the emergency room now.”

Infant Kaliah Jeffery was admitted to a special intensive care unit at Providence Regional Medical Center Everett in early August, one of eight Snohomish County babies hospitalized for whooping cough last year.

Kaliah’s problems quickly mounted. She coughed so much that doctors inserted a feeding tube so she could keep her food down.

A few days later, they hooked her up to a ventilator to help her labored breathing.

By her fifth day in the hospital, Kaliah was racked by seizures.

The infant was transferred to Seattle Children’s Hospital. Doctors told the baby’s parents, then 17-year-old Tanner Jeffery, Anderson’s son and Kaliah’s father, and Chelsey Charles, the baby’s 17-year-old mother, that their daughter might not survive.

With last week’s announcement that whooping cough has become an epidemic in Snohomish County, Anderson wanted to share the story of her granddaughter and how tragic the childhood disease can be. A total of 806 cases occurred in Washington last year with 220 of them — or about 27 percent of the state’s total — happening in Snohomish County. That’s up from 564 statewide in 2010.

In November and December, whooping cough was reported in Arlington, Monroe, Marysville, Darrington, Granite Falls, Stanwood and Lake Stevens.

Anderson, who lives in Lake Stevens and is speaking for her family, said Chelsey had been immunized against tetanus, diphtheria and whooping cough five years earlier, when she was 12. She was immunized again after the birth of Kaliah.

But Chelsey had a cough before the birth of the baby that wouldn’t go away last summer.

“It wasn’t much of a cough, nothing alarming,” said Anderson, who works as a medical assistant at a clinic near Lake Serene.

It wasn’t until after the birth that doctors determined the mother and daughter both had whooping cough, known as pertussis.

At Children’s, medical staff were preparing to do a scan on Kaliah’s brain when they suddenly rushed her out of the room. They hooked her up to a heart-lung machine, telling the family she’d probably need to remain on the device for several weeks.

Twenty four hours later, on Aug. 16, medical staff called family members into a room. “They said they’d have to take her off the machine,” Anderson said. “Four doctors were all in tears and said they couldn’t do anything more.”

Chelsey held Kaliah in her arms as Tanner stood nearby. The infant “had two breaths and then passed away,” Anderson said. “It was devastating. My son was so in love with her.”

Anderson said that in her work at the medical clinic, she often hears adults say they don’t know that adults should get updated immunizations to protect against pertussis, diphtheria and tetanus.

Infants can’t be immunized until they’re 2 months old. So their best protection, health officials say, is for any adult who cares for them to be immunized.

“Every chance I get with a patient, especially when they talk about having a grandbaby, I bring up the pertussis shot,” Anderson said.

“I would say 90 percent of the people I talk to have no idea that adults need to be vaccinated, too.”

Following Kaliah’s death, a relative who works at The Everett Clinic launched a Facebook page to promote awareness of pertussis and the importance of immunizations.

Last fall, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that pregnant women should be immunized while still pregnant, around the third trimester, rather than waiting until their baby is delivered.

And The Everett Clinic Foundation recently donated $14,000 to the Snohomish Health District so that 430 free doses of the vaccine can be provided next month to low-income adults without health insurance.

Anderson said she hopes these efforts, and telling Kaliah’s story, have helped bring more attention to the disease.

“I’m glad she didn’t just pass way and nothing good came out of it,” she said. “There’s lots of awareness. I do feel that she made a difference.”

Sharon Salyer: 425-339-3486 or

Pertussis cases

Breakdown of 2011 pertussis cases in Snohomish County:

Adult: 54

School-age child: 130

Preschool child: 18

Infant: 18

Total: 220

Source: Snohomish Health District

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