The Guardian


I survived rabies

As told to Elizabeth McCafferty Jeanna Giese

In 2004, when I was 15, I watched a petrified little bat flap around inside my church in Wisconsin during a Sunday service. I didn’t know it, but that bat would change my life. The bat was bouncing between the stained glass windows trying to escape. Churchgoers swatted at it with their hats. Someone landed a swing and it fell on the floor, stunned. As an animal lover, I asked my mom if I could put it outside. She nodded and I carried it to the door. It was screeching terribly.

As I got outside, I found a pine tree I thought would be perfect to let it rest on, but before I could, it clamped down hard on my finger. The puncture mark was no bigger than a pinprick, but it oozed blood and was very painful.

When we got home, my mom cleaned the wound with antiseptic. We told some people, who thought it was an unusual thing to happen during Sunday mass, but the idea that the bite might become much more serious was the last thing on anyone’s mind.

Three weeks later, I started feeling unbelievably tired. A few days after that, I could not get out of bed, had double vision and was vomiting uncontrollably. Soon I became unresponsive. My doctor referred me to a neurologist, who sent me for a CT scan, searching for signs of meningitis or Lyme disease. We were sent home, but my parents drove me to hospital two days later, on a Saturday, when my symptoms had not improved. They did more scans and kept me in.

On Monday, my mom mentioned the bat bite to a paediatrician and his face went white. I was rushed to a specialist children’s hospital nearby. They took samples of my skin and spinal fluid.

By Tuesday, the rabies diagnosis was confirmed. My parents were told this was a near-guaranteed death sentence. No one had survived rabies without a vaccination. They were given the option to leave me to die in the hospital or to take me home. My parents were devastated. The whole thing happened so quickly that they couldn’t process it.

The paediatrician scoured the internet, desperate to find something that could save me. He told my parents he wanted to test something that had never been tried before. They immediately said yes because they were so desperate.

Rabies takes hold by travelling through the nerves and spinal cord up into the brain, where the virus starts shutting the body down. The doctor wanted to slow its progress, and planned to put me into a coma to suppress my brain function. This would give my immune system time to fight the virus.

On 10 October, I was put into a coma. I was so ill throughout this episode that I don’t remember anything after I first got sick – since then, I’ve pieced everything together from other people. My memory only comes back two weeks later, after I was woken up from the coma. I tried to scream, but no sound came out. I couldn’t walk, talk, sit up or do anything.

I was in hospital for 11 weeks, then spent two years at its outpatient therapy unit, re-learning to talk and move. It took me two months to learn how to walk again on my own, and two years to not need any assistance. Since I was, at that point, the only person to have survived rabies without a vaccine, I became a global news sensation and had to work on my recovery with film crews documenting every minute. It was overwhelming. What helped was the support from my family and the doctors, as well as letters from all over the world.

I have improved since then, although I still have nerve damage. A few other people have since recovered from rabies using the same method. While not every case has had the same positive outcome, it is incredible that there is now a chance of surviving a disease once considered fatal without a vaccination. I am overjoyed to know that I helped pave the way for that change.

The experience made me want to raise awareness of rabies so something like this doesn’t happen to anyone else – I work regularly with charities to do so. I now have three children and work in a children’s museum. And despite it all, my love of animals is still strong. I volunteer with bat conservation charities – one might have nearly taken my life, but I feel it’s still my duty to protect theirs.

My mom mentioned the bat bite to a paediatrician and his face went white

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