How My Sister Helped Save My Daughter From Whooping Cough 
Jun 19, 2017

TamaraSheffieldHeadShotBy Tamara Sheffield, MD, MPA, MPH, Medical Director, Community Health and Prevention, Intermountain Healthcare

In my role as a medical director at Intermountain Healthcare in Salt Lake City, Utah, I am responsible for Community Health and Prevention.  You could say that I’m a professional advocate for immunizations, since they prevent many illnesses, hospitalizations and even deaths.  In fact, maternal immunizations are one of today’s most promising new preventive health strategies.

By vaccinating pregnant women against certain diseases – like whooping cough (pertussis) and influenza – we are reducing the amount of illness, hospitalization, miscarriage and pre-term labor these women experience as a result of these diseases.

Additionally, maternal vaccines enable pregnant women to pass on protective antibodies to their unborn babies.  These antibodies provide newborns with early, short-term protection against pertussis or flu, during the time when they are too young to receive their own vaccines to prevent these diseases.

For instance, children must be six months of age before they can receive their first flu vaccination, and the DTaP vaccine, which helps prevent whooping cough in children, is administered as a series of five shots (with doses at 2, 4, 6, 15-18 months, and 4-6 years of age). Sadly, there are about 100 pediatric deaths due to influenza each year, and 90% of all deaths associated with whooping cough are among infants, mostly because the thick mucus that accompanies the infection has a severe impact on a baby’s ability to breath.

For an expectant woman, changes in the immune system, heart and lungs during pregnancy make them more prone to illness.  When a pregnant women gets ill, it raises her risk of complications, such as premature labor and delivery.  But research shows that mothers can help protect themselves and their babies by getting vaccinated during pregnancy.

The flu vaccine is recommended at any trimester of each pregnancy. An adult Tdap booster vaccine is recommended during each pregnancy as well – and studies show that the best time for optimal transfer of protective antibodies is at 27-to-36 weeks gestation. The ongoing research continues to indicate that these maternal immunizations are effective at reducing the number of flu and whooping cough-related illnesses, hospitalizations and deaths among infants.

The abundance of scientific evidence on this matter is one reason I am a strong advocate for maternal vaccinations.  However, I have a very personal reason to advocate for maternal vaccinations as well.

You see, I know an amazing 25-year-old young woman who nearly died from whooping cough when she was just three weeks old. 

Alicia Outside ICU at Phoenix Childrens' Hospital

Like many infants who suffer with whooping cough, this beautiful baby girl contracted it from a family member.  During the weeks before delivery, her mother developed a persistent cough that went undiagnosed, and she unknowingly passed whooping cough on to her baby.  Three weeks later, after a couple of incidents where the baby stopped breathing and turned blue, her parents rushed her to the hospital.

While being examined by the ER doctor, the baby once again stopped breathing and turned blue. Immediately a code was called and the baby was given breathing help.  She was life-flighted to Phoenix Children’s Hospital where she spent three days in the ICU and another three days outside of ICU.  Although the worrisome cough continued for weeks, the baby would eventually recover without complications.

Surprisingly, this young lady is now my daughter. 

My husband’s sweet first wife – my step daughter’s mother – died from cancer ten years ago. My husband and I have been married eight years now, and I have gratefully become a second mother to their seven wonderful children.

SheffiedFamilyThe amazing twist in this story came about when we were looking through our daughter’s baby book. There were pictures from the ICU and two newspaper articles written about the whooping cough outbreak in Phoenix at the time. It wasn’t until then that we realized that my sister, a specialist in pediatric infectious diseases, was part of the team at Phoenix Children’s Hospital that saved my daughter’s life 16 years before I ever met her or my husband.

I can’t imagine my life or this world without my daughter in them!  What a gift from my sister, and what an amazing gift that my daughter survived! 

img_3282.jpgNeedless to say, our 25-year-old miracle daughter has gotten every recommended vaccine for herself and her own one-year-old daughter. I am grateful that she survived, and her story motivates me to help ensure that no other child has to suffer or risk a tragedy as she did.

So yes, I am an enormous advocate of vaccination.

With science guiding the way, I believe that today’s maternal vaccine recommendations will help reduce the number of infant deaths from whooping cough and influenza.  After all, what a gift it is for expectant mothers to realize the wonderful ways that vaccines can help save lives – their own babies’ lives – even before their babies are born.

Tamara Sheffield, MD, MPA, MPH, Medical Director, Community Health and Prevention
Intermountain Healthcare


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