The health impact of the whooping cough epidemic in California has hit one Merced family hard.
Elizabeth Oliver, the mother of 6-week-old Tristen Oliver, is staying in a motor home at Children's Hospital Central California in Madera while her tiny son fights for his life.
Oliver and her husband, Carl Oliver, first noticed symptoms in their son, who is a twin, about three weeks ago.
"He was coughing, but it wasn't too bad," Elizabeth recalled. "I took him to his pediatrician, and she said it was probably an upper respiratory."
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Whooping cough is caused by a bacteria and can be treated with antibiotics, but the common cold or upper respiratory disease is caused by a virus and antibiotics do no good.
A whooping cough epidemic plagues the state. According to Richard Rios, the community health services manager for Merced County, there are 44 confirmed cases of whooping cough, or pertussis, in the county. Six babies have died of the disease in California so far this year.
Oliver's pediatrician told Tristen's mother that if the baby got worse to take him to the emergency room.
That's just what she did July 10. Oliver said Tristen was coughing and throwing up, turning bright red when he coughed and he wouldn't eat.
"He couldn't keep anything down, so I took him to Mercy," Oliver said. "I told the doctor I was worried about whooping cough, but the doctor said it wasn't that."
Despite denying the baby had the disease, doctors at Mercy sent Tristen home with antibiotics, which is the standard of care for whooping cough. A test for whooping cough was also done on the baby, but the hospital told Oliver the results wouldn't be back for a week.
Two days later, Oliver thought her son was worse, so she took him to Children's Hospital.
"He was lethargic and still couldn't keep any food down," Oliver said.
But at Children's Hospital, the doctors who saw tiny Tristen told his mother he didn't have whooping cough, and to stop the antibiotics.
"It was horrible," Oliver said. "They took an X-ray, said everything was OK and sent us home."
Children's Hospital didn't return phone calls Friday.
On July 14, Oliver took Tristen back to Mercy's emergency room. This time the baby was admitted.
"He was coughing so much his eyes bugged out," Oliver said.
Tristen spent two days at Mercy being treated for whooping cough. While he was there, he got worse.
"I was terrified," Oliver said. "My baby was turning purple in my arms."
After running a series of tests on Tristen, Mercy sent the baby to Children's Hospital by helicopter July 16. "From about 4 in the morning to 7, he had seven episodes," Oliver said. "He coughed so hard he stopped breathing. I had to stay really still because any movement would trigger his coughing."
After his arrival at Children's Hospital, Tristen was given the whooping cough test. Results came back the next day. He had tested positive for the disease.
Tristen is now sedated and on a ventilator, his mother said.
"He's not doing too good. The hospital said he would be there about a month," Oliver said. "They said he's pretty bad, but they've seen worse."
Because of the epidemic that has struck California, a lot of people are worried about whooping cough. Although anyone can get the disease, it hits infants under 6 months old the hardest.
Dr. John Paik-Tesch, a family practice doctor in Merced, said whooping cough is extremely serious in tiny babies.
"In infants, a lot of the symptoms can be very similar to the common cold," Paik-Tesch said. "Unless a child has been sick a week to two weeks, we normally don't get too concerned."
Paik-Tesch said if a baby under six months is coughing so hard he's gagging or throwing up after a coughing spell, that baby should see his pediatrician.
"What you don't want to do is run to the emergency room because the chances are it isn't pertussis," Paik-Tesch said. "You are going to a place where there are a lot of sick people, which isn't good for the baby."
Paik-Tesch said a baby having problems breathing is another story. "If the baby can't breathe, then it's obviously an emergency."
Because whooping cough can be deadly to infants, Paik-Tesch said anyone who's going to be around an infant under six months old should be immunized against pertussis. New mothers are given whooping cough shots when they are discharged from the hospital, but other family members should also get vaccinated.
"The father of the baby, the grandparents -- anyone who is going to be around an infant should make sure their immunizations are up to date," Paik-Tesch said.
Children are given immunizations against pertussis as infants in a series of shots, but those shots wear off by about age 11, Paik-Tesch said. Children over the age of 11 who are around a new baby should have their booster shots, he said.
Oliver said whooping cough hit her son hard. Tristen weighed more than his twin brother, Nicholas, at birth, but Nicholas has passed his brother now.
"Tristen weighed seven pounds when he was born," Oliver said. "That's what he weighs now. His brother weighs 10 pounds."
Oliver said parents who think their baby might have pertussis should insist on a certain standard of care.
"Demand a test," Oliver said. "Get them on antibiotics. If they are really bad, demand that they be admitted to the hospital. This has been a terrifying experience."
Reporter Carol Reiter can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or firstname.lastname@example.org.