Little did I know that that particular theory would soon change - quite dramatically!
Saturday 27th August was my son’s birthday and I woke up coughing a bit more than I had been previously. Not enough to bother me much during the course of the day, but when I went to sleep that night, the real trouble started. I woke up several times during the night having coughing fits that seemed to be getting worse and worse. The last one in the early hours of Sunday morning was so scary that I said to my wife that we should go to the hospital to get it checked out. So about 8am Sunday morning off we went to the local emergency unit where a doctor diagnosed a chest infection and prescribed antibiotics and steroids.
The following morning I got an emergency appointment with my GP and she referred me for a chest x-ray which I had the same day. I was told the results could take up to a week but in fact they were back in the surgery the following morning and revealed I had a partially deflated lung. That was the least of my worries as in the meantime I had experienced more and more coughing fits to the point that I was now scared to go to bed. Really bad episodes of choking and gasping for breath that lasted anywhere between under a minute to more than two. As a result I tried staying up watching TV as long as I could. Being tired seemed a better option than choking to near death.
I got through Tuesday night somehow but the coughing continued off and on through Wednesday. Bizarrely I felt absolutely fine when I wasn’t gasping for breath, but when the coughing attacks kicked in I became a bit panicky to say the least as I had no idea what was causing such awful episodes. My wife was also beside herself with worry, fatigue and the fear that I was going to pop off in front of her eyes – that’s how bad some of the attacks were.
Wednesday night I again tried to stay up and watch tv, not just to give my wife some respite but also hopefully to avoid more attacks. Around 4am though I could barely keep my eyes open so decided to try and sleep on the sofa. 20 minutes later I woke up feeling like I was drowning/suffocating and desperately trying to draw breath. Thankfully my wife heard my gasps and wheezes from upstairs and ran down to try and help me. Eventually, I managed to get my breath but was left feeling exhausted. It was then that we decided to call an ambulance as we were getting more and more bewildered by this ‘chest infection’ that was causing such scary and more frequent coughing episodes. Basically, whenever I coughed, my throat shut tight and was very reluctant to open up again. I later learned this is what's called a laryngospasm.
The ambulance team ran a few tests – all of which seemed fairly normal i.e. blood pressure, oxygen levels, pulse – before taking me down to the local hospital where I had a blood sample taken and a doctor do various tests again to try and ascertain what was wrong. The upshot was they gave me stronger antibiotics and acknowledged that the results of my blood test revealed that I did indeed have an infection. I was then sent home.
I managed to endure Thursday with similar episodes - there seemed no point in going back to hospital again as it appeared there was nothing they could do. After all, other than the irregular cough that had me gasping for breath, all my other signs were good. However, another particularly horrendous episode on the Friday night saw me back in hospital again early Saturday morning. The one consolation being that my belief that Friday nights were really busy one for A&E Units was knocked for six when, at five in the morning, I was the only person in there apart from the bloke on reception. We had a lovely chat when I wasn’t coughing.
This time I saw a doctor who, whilst pleasant enough, didn't really know what to do for the best. He could see I was struggling when the cough kicked in but the best he could suggest was that maybe it was GERD related i.e. food reflux. I knew it wasn’t, but he prescribed me some tablets for it anyway (which I still have). He also, at my suggestion (as I had read they can suppress coughs) chucked in some codeine phosphate pills, but being anti-drugs and not wanting to be out of it when trying to cope with future attacks I chose not to take them once I had read about the possible side effects. Again, I was discharged, this time around 6am. My wife said she couldn't believe it when she heard me coming up the garden path coughing at around 6.45am! She was convinced they had to keep me in for observation, so bad was the latest attack.
Throughout this time I had been exchanging messages with a GP friend of mine, just letting him know what was going on. After I told him of this latest visit to the hospital, he asked if they had tested me for Pertussis and was amazed when I said they hadn’t. To be fair, I didn't even know what Pertussis was, then, but I do now, only too well! It’s whooping cough, and as soon as I read about the symptoms and timeframes involved I knew straight away that that is what I had. In fact it was glaringly obvious. The dry tickly cough to start, the feeling perfectly fine in between coughing fits, with no other bodily indicators to suggest I was unwell. The dreadful, irregular attacks that had me thinking I was gasping my last breath, the fear of going to bed at night – it all added up. And yet, not once during my trips to hospital or surgery had any doctor even thought to consider or mention that whooping cough was a possibility.
Armed with this new information I took it upon myself to go back to the hospital again on the Saturday afternoon and see a doctor to explain that that is what I thought it was and to ask for a per nasal swab test. A very kind, compassionate and thorough doctor listened to my story, which included me having a bit of a coughing fit and breaking down in tears with frustration and fatigue, before contacting the microbiology consultant who explained to her how to do the test. Cue two long wire brush type looking implements being shoved up each nostril and scrubbing the back of my throat – not an experience I recommend – and being sent away for tests. At last I would get to the bottom of this mystery illness and the results would confirm that it was whooping cough all along, wouldn’t they?
To keep my GP in the loop I made an appointment on the following Monday, where I explained what had been going on. I then kept my fingers crossed that the results would be back sooner rather than later. But no! Instead, I got a phone call from a doctor in the emergency unit at the hospital on the Wednesday saying she had had a note from microbiology that stated that the samples I had given were the wrong kind! What? They shoved two brushes up my nose and scrubbed the back of my throat – I remember it well! How could they be the wrong samples? Anyway, that was the situation. As luck would have it though, this latest doctor had herself had whooping cough last year so she was able to empathise with me, but ended by saying that hers lasted exactly 100 days. I was only on about day 30 at this stage, so it wasn’t really what I wanted to hear. Oh well. She suggested I have a Pertussis antibodies blood test, which would definitely reveal whether I had whooping cough or not, so I got back in touch with my GP and asked for them to leave a form out. Then it was back to the hospital yet again for a two-hour wait to have my blood taken – on one of the hottest days of the year - followed by more coughing/choking fits. Here's an example of a MILD attack (warning: it is pretty grim listening). The worst ones went on for around 3-5 times as long, if you can imagine that.
Thankfully, because I work from home, I mix with far fewer people than many, but the doctors aren't to know that. I feel like I have been on a sole crusade to try and establish what is wrong with me and have had to take the lead at every stage. Asking for an x-ray, asking for a swab test, even having to ask for the forms for a blood test. I even managed to get myself a CT scan appointment, though I declined it when they revealed it had been booked for a thorax/abdomen investigation rather than a throat one, which is where all the trouble lies. That and the fact they wanted to inject me with dye!
The last twist to this story is that today I opened a letter and had to laugh (even though laughing makes me cough). It was from Public Health England informing me that they had been notified that I had whooping cough. Finally, after nearly six weeks of suffering. After enduring many scary nights when, in the absence of understanding the cause I sometimes felt like I was going to choke to death. After all that, I now know I have had whooping cough all along. And, they beat my GP's surgery to it. When I contacted them yesterday for the results I was told, “yes they are back. A doctor will have a look at them in the next day or two”. I appreciate they have many other important things to do, but come on. I’ve been trying to get a diagnosis for ages!
In conclusion the NHS does a great job. I can’t fault the speed and efficiency of the ambulance crews, the way I was able to get an emergency appointment at my local surgery or the efficiency of the staff at the hospital (other than the fact that no one at any stage thought to even consider whooping cough as the cause of my woes). It may not have made a huge difference as there is no treatment for it, you just have to endure it for as long as it takes (up to 100 days). But, it may have given me a bit more peace of mind on those nights when I was scared to go to bed and genuinely feared I might be breathing my last. Here's how serious it was at its peak - I asked my wife to video it one night so that the doctors could see just how bad it was. She said she wasn’t going to do that as she didn't want to film me dying. Trust me, adults DO get whooping cough - and, it's easily the worst illness I have ever had in my life. Make sure you and your family have been vaccinated.