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Gavin's Story: A mother's crusade against pertussis

By Jennifer Stagg | Posted - May. 8, 2011 at 10:00 p.m.

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SALT LAKE CITY -- Most new parents try to take every precaution with their newborns, staying away from anyone who may be sick and keeping everything clean. But what if you as the parent are carrying the very thing that could kill your infant?

The Norton family suffered a terrible loss from a disease they didn't even think was a threat.

Pertussis, known more commonly as whooping cough, is a disease that is highly contagious and one of the most preventable with regular vaccinations. The disease is usually mild in adults, but can be deadly for infants.

Richie and Natalie Norton believe each of their four sons were born with a purpose. And on the day their youngest, Gavin, entered the world, they had no way of knowing just how significant -- and brief -- his life would be.

"With each of our children, we felt something different at their birth," Natalie said, "And Gavin, we just felt absolute joy -- just elation."

Gavin David Bruce Norton was named after Natalie's younger brother, who had passed away at age 21. Natalie was particularly cautious with her new son.

Whooping cough symptoms
The symptoms of whooping cough usually occur in two stages.
  • First stage
    Runny nose
    Possibly low-grade fever

  • Second stage
    Uncontrolled coughing spells or fits
    Possible whooping noise when child breathes in
    Can last for 6-10 weeks
If your child has these symptoms keep them home and contact your health care provider.

The Norton's planned to travel from their home in Hawaii to visit family in Utah when Gavin was two months old. To make sure he was healthy, Natalie visited her doctor who gave Gavin a clean bill of health and the green light for the trip.

The Norton's traveled to Utah, believing that everything was fine. About a week into their trip, Gavin developed a cough.

Concerned, they took Gavin to a doctor who told them it was RSV, but Gavin's condition quickly declined. They rushed him to the emergency room at Primary Children's Medical Center.

"It was horrifying and very scary," Richie described. "But at the same time, we just had all the faith in the world that he was going to be fine -- we were going to be leaving -- but that's not the way it happened."

Doctors diagnosed 8-week-old Gavin with Pertussis.

It wasn't something the Norton's knew much about. And it would turn their healthy, perfect newborn into an infant fighting for his life.

Watching their son's condition move from a cough to being placed in the pediatric intensive care unit was absolutely horrifying, Natalie related.

Desperate for a miracle, Natalie, a photographer, poured her heart into her blog and strangers from around the world listened.

For a moment, it was as if the heavens opened and we just could really feel -- I guess -- love, for him and his life.

–Richie Norton

"We were getting messages from one man in Istanbul," Richie stated. "He said he stayed up all night praying for our baby. We got messages from Ireland and Australia -- anywhere in the world you can think of.

Natalie continued: "People were telling us they hadn't prayed in years and here they were praying for the first time all over this sweet little boy."

Doctors tried their hardest to save little Gavin's life, but the Norton's came to believe that there was a different plan for their baby.

And at 10 weeks old, they watched him quietly slip away.

"For a moment, it was as if the heavens opened and we just could really feel -- I guess -- love, for him and his life," Richie said.

"We snuggled him and we sang to him," Natalie added, "and we said goodbye."

Being a mom, standing and watching, and there's nothing you can do, I wouldn't wish that on anyone. And if all it takes is a little shot to protect us, it's absolutely worth it.

–Natalie Norton

The Nortons learned that for all of their precautions, pertussis was in Gavin's system before they ever left their home in Hawaii.

When Natalie gave birth, she had a little bit of a cold. There was a high probability that Natalie passed pertussis on to Gavin, which is something that no mother wants to think about.

According to the Sounds of Pertussis Campaign, 80 percent of the time, babies contract pertussis from their parent or caregiver.

What many people don't realize is that vaccines lose their effectiveness over time. Individuals, especially parents, should be updating their vaccines to ensure that they do not contract a previously vaccinated disease.

The Norton's are now passionate spokespeople for the Sounds of Pertussis. They want every adult to get their T- Dap vaccination -- including every new mother -- before they leave the hospital with their baby.

"Being a mom, standing and watching, and there's nothing you can do, I wouldn't wish that on anyone," Natalie described. "And if all it takes is a little shot to protect us, it's absolutely worth it."

Gavin was buried next to the uncle he was named after.

His parents stress the importance of education -- other babies will live because of the Norton's loss.

Despite the heartache the Norton's have experienced, Natalie believes that there is one message that everyone should know.

"I really truly believe with all my heart that Gavin's purpose was to help people know that they have a Father in Heaven who loves them."

Gavin was born on October 24th, 2009 and passed away on January 7th, 2010.

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