Six-month coughing spell baffles physicians

News editor

Gary Ewert of Marion has no choice other than to be a good loser when playing hide-and-seek these days.

Chronic coughing that has plagued Ewert continuously for nearly six months has doctors baffled, but it’s a dead giveaway for his 4-year-old grandson, Kael.

“He’ll be looking and looking and then all of a sudden Gary coughs, and his face just lights up,” Gary’s wife, Elaine, said.

He explained: “When papa hides, he’s easy to find. I can’t stay hidden for too long.”

Ewert’s humor doesn’t conceal his concerns about how the coughing might affect his relationships with Kael and Kael’s 14-month old sister Reagan.

“I don’t want my grandkids to know me as the papa that coughs all the time,” Ewert said.

Ewert remembers when his coughing began.

“It was Jan. 16,” Ewert said. “I woke up with a horrible cough.”

It was bad enough that he went to the emergency room at St. Luke Hospital.

Ewert works as a teacher in a Newton middle school, and when the coughing subsided a bit, he decided to try going to work Jan. 20.

“I didn’t make it more than an hour,” he said.

He called his doctor, Don Hodson, who sent him directly to Newton Medical Center. Ewert estimates he was there for almost five hours as the medical staff did tests and tried different treatments, none of which stopped his coughing.

“Ever since then I haven’t been able to go more than 10 to 15 minutes without coughing,” Ewert said.

Ewert has been examined by several specialists with Via Christi in Wichita, including a pulmonologist, allergist, and otolaryngologist. St. Luke Hospital has provided many of the tests for Ewert’s elusive diagnosis and treatment.

“I was very fortunate to have St. Luke and not have to make special trips someplace else,” Ewert said.

Doctors have tried all the standard treatments —nebulizers, steroid shots, cough medicines, a continuous positive airway pressure machine — but nothing has worked to stop the coughing.

Ewert said testing has failed to find anything medically wrong or treatable.

“They’re stumped,” he said.

The only times he gets temporary relief from the coughing is at night, when he uses sleep aids, and when he is perfectly still, Ewert said. Simple motions like reaching for a glass of water can immediately trigger another round of coughing.

“I can talk a couple of sentences, I can move a little bit. I walk, but I cough when I walk,” Ewert said. “If I try to do any physical stuff, I can’t breathe, I have shortness of breath.”

Ewert has been forced to curtail many of his favorite activities, from camping and hiking to pushing his grandchildren in a swing. He depends on Elaine for transportation.

“She’s done most of the driving — if I get into a bad coughing fit, I don’t feel comfortable driving,” he said.

When Ewert’s coughing has been more intense, the couple has found it easier to communicate by using a dry-erase board and texting, rather than talking.

But Ewert hasn’t become a recluse, even though he knows his coughing can be uncomfortable for both him and the people around him.

“At first, I didn’t want to go out. I know I’m going to get stares,” Ewert said. “I try to cover my mouth in public, even though I’m not contagious. It’s just the thing to do.

“I’m not trying to be Typhoid Mary of Marion, Kansas. There’s nothing to expose anyone to.”

People do notice, and some reactions are negative.

“You hear them clear across Pizza Hut – that guy should be in the hospital,” Elaine said.

Others, however, want to help by giving Ewert possible remedies.

“A little old lady at Red Lobster in her walker – she stops me and says, ‘I’ve got a cure for that cough — go home and take a shot of bourbon,’” Ewert laughed. “It doesn’t work, but that’s OK.”

Among the stranger suggestions, which include acupuncture and gargling with coconut oil, there’s one Ewert said was truly novel.

“Take a slice of onion, put it on the sole of your foot and put a sock on it,” Ewert said.

At first, even Ewert’s boxer, Estelle, shied away from him.

“The dog was afraid of me. She didn’t even want to come near me,” Ewert said. “Then when she realized I was staying home all day she warmed up pretty quickly.”

Ewert admits he’s had moments of frustration and depression, but he maintains a positive attitude by finding humor in his condition, and through his faith in God.

The Ewerts attend services at Eastmoor United Methodist Church, but even this routine has been altered.

“We try to sit toward the back, out of the way,” Ewert said. “I don’t understand people who don’t have some sort of faith, because I know it does a lot of things. I know there are a lot of people who pray for me. We don’t always get the answers we want, but we eventually get the answers God wants us to have.”

Ewert said he was grateful for the concern shown to him by friends and his grandson, Kael.

“He tells Elaine, ‘You need to take papa to the doctor until he gets well,’” Ewert said.

The next step for Ewert will be a one-week stay at National Jewish Hospital in Denver, considered the best hospital in the country specializing in respiratory care. Ewert is optimistic a cause and solution will be found. He also keeps his condition in perspective.

“I have a cough — how can I complain? I’m fortunate,” Ewert said.

 

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