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Unvaccinated Rabies Survivor Thrives

Posted Oct 23 2008 2:24pm
Last December, Jeanna Giese spent Christmas in the hospital, unable to speak or walk as she suffered from the effects of rabies. This year, the 16-year-old is celebrating her improbable survival at home with her family.

The teenager, who is the world's only known unvaccinated human rabies survivor, is regaining her ability to walk and talk. She has returned to school, and has plans to return to the volleyball team next year and eventually, attend college.

"Every time that I look at Jeanna, I feel how fortunate we are. She's the only one in the world, so you kind of look at things a little bit different," said her father, John Giese.

Bitten by a rabid bat at her church in Fond du Lac on Sept. 12, 2004, Jeanna did not seek immediate treatment and became gravely ill a month later. Rabies attacks the nervous system and normally results in death within a week of symptoms developing.

She was admitted to Children's Hospital in Milwaukee where doctors administered an unproven combination of drugs and induced a coma in their effort to save her life.

When Jeanna was brought out of the coma about a week later, she was paralyzed and without sensation, said Dr. Rodney Willoughby, her lead physician at Children's Hospital and the Medical College of Wisconsin.

Physicians detected brain-wave activity, but were unsure what was ahead after the drugs would wear off.

"Within a day or two she started giving us reflexes and eye movements," Willoughby said. "This was a nail-biter. I didn't relax until she left the hospital."

After nearly 11 weeks, Giese left the hospital in a wheelchair on Jan. 1, 2005. The long road to recovery was ahead, as she worked to regain her faculties, including her ability to speak and walk.

Jeanna said she remembers nothing about her initial weeks in the hospital and it wasn't until around Thanksgiving of last year that she began to realize where she was and what had happened.

Now, she is in sync academically with her junior class at St. Mary's Springs High School after spending the summer hitting the books. She manages the varsity girl's basketball team and has earned her temporary driver's license.

With two dogs, three rabbits and two pheasants as family pets, she envisions a future in veterinary science.

Physical therapy still consumes a large chunk of her time — nearly two hours, three times a week. She also gets speech therapy. In the last month, she has developed more control over her fine motor skills and her gait, said her mother, Ann Giese.

"She's starting to be able to run a little better, not very far. But that's coming back a little bit," Ann Giese said.

A reluctant celebrity in the world of infectious diseases, Jeanna would rather be off the radar screen, playing sports and joking with her friends. She doesn't like to dwell on the odds of her survival, which Willoughby pegged at one in a million.

"I guess I feel like I have accomplished a lot," she said.

Willoughby plans a formal IQ test and computer analysis of Jeanna's walking ability in April, which will be about 18 months after she was infected with rabies.

He said he is disappointed the treatment used to save Jeanna's life has not been duplicated since it was published in the New England Journal of Medicine in June. Before it was published, it was tried in India and Germany.

"No one's willing to try this because it consumes so many intensive care resources," he said. Most of the 60,000 human rabies cases worldwide each year occur in poor countries that lack such resources, Willoughby said.

The Gieses said they relied on their faith to help them through the difficult time. And, even with the struggles of the last year, Ann Giese still considers her family among the fortunate.

"When you think that there's kids with cancer, there's kids that get in accidents or have some other disease. And they might not recover," she said. "We don't have it as bad as other people. It was at the time. But she's here and she's getting back to normal."

For Jeanna, that means a normal Christmas morning at home with her three siblings, Jonathan, 21, Matthew, 19, and B.J., 13.

"We'll all run down to the tree and open presents and have a big breakfast," she said.
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