Health | Science

Rabies Is Supposed To Be A Death Sentence, But An Experimental Procedure Saved Her Life

NBC

With modern medicine, there are very few diseases that still strike fear into our hearts the way rabies does.

A human suffering from rabies.galaxy6manual.info

It's not the world's deadliest disease, or even very common, but for decades it was common knowledge that if you had rabies, your days were numbered. Rabies is a virus that attacks your brain, stopping your body from swallowing, or your mind from regulating your heartbeat and breathing.

Before symptoms set in (which usually takes less than a week) you can take five rabies vaccines which increase your chance of surviving the disease. They contain dead samples of the rabies virus, which helps your body fight the disease by building antibodies.

The rabies vaccine is effective, but there's a short time limit to take it.Washington City Paper

But once a patient develops the early symptoms, there's not much a doctor can do. Even now, researchers haven't found the "magic bullet" to effectively treat rabies. In some countries, patients suffering from the virus are simply comforted until they pass away, or even sent home to die.

Jenna Giese was 15 when she contracted rabies.Youth Health

So you can appreciate how scared 15-year-old Jenna Giese was when she realized she had caught the virus. Incredibly, Jenna survived to become the first person who outlived the rabies virus. But it wasn't easy...

In 2004, Jenna was at her local church in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin when she found a bat hiding under the building.

A rabid bat.Joliet Patch

The animal turned out to be rabid, and it bit Jenna on her finger. At the time, her parents "never though of rabies," and just cleaned the wound with hydrogen peroxide. It took three weeks, until Jenna's symptoms became overwhelming, for them to realize what had happened.

When Jenna was admitted to the hospital she had a fever of 102 degrees, severe fatigue, double vision, nausea and a tingling sensations in her limb. As rabies worsens, patients suffer from hallucinations, deliria and even a fear of water.

Eventually, as rabies attacks the brain, the patients become paralyzed, suffer from heart attacks or suffocate, trapped in their own bodies. Jenna's doctor, Rodney Willoughby Jr., was willing to try anything to prevent this from happening to Jenna.

Dr. Willoughby and Giese.Princeton Alumni Weekly

His solution has since been named the Milwaukee Protocol, and Jenna was the first patient to test the daring procedure. When the treatment began, Willoughby said she "looked as if she might die within the day."

With no other choice, Willoughby "shut [her] brain down," and waited to see if his gamble paid off...

Willoughby's theory was that if Giese's mind could be sedated with tranquilizers, her immune system could fight the virus while her body was protected.

Giese was sedated, to slow down the effects of the virus.Rise 4 You

The teenager was put into a coma and given another dose of immunity-boosting shots. There was a risk that Giese would wake up with brain damage, but there was no other hope that she could be cured. Within days, her condition was improving dramatically and doctors took her out of the coma.

Before being put into a coma, rabies had already basically paralyzed Giese. She couldn't walk or talk, and had been drifting in and out of consciousness. After the treatment she was more alert, but had to relearn how to do pretty much everything.

Giese and her family leave the hospital.Spokesman

After months and years of rehab, Giese learned to walk again. While she would never be a star athlete like she was before (she still walks with a lean to one side) Giese could live a normal and happy life. She went on to college and studied biology, ironically writing a thesis on the many diseases affecting wild bat populations.

Even Dr. Willoughby admits that Giese's case involved "10 percent sheer luck." Of the 36 patients treated with the Milwaukee Protocol since her case, just five have survived. But Giese has hope that more research will someday lead to a cure for rabies.

Today, Giese is a happy and health mother-of-two.TMJ4

"They shouldn't stop 'till it's perfected," she said, "At 15, I never would have thought that anything like this would ever happen, and that I lived is just amazing."

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[H/T: Scientific American]