Teen Rabies Survivor on the Mend

ByABC News via logo
January 14, 2005, 7:35 AM

Jan. 14, 2005 — -- Three months ago, 15-year-old Jeanna Giese was bitten by a bat. Instead of rushing to the hospital to receive a rabies vaccine, the Wisconsin teen figured it was simply a scratch, and gave the wound a good washing.

But soon symptoms, such as double vision and occasional unconsciousness, started to appear.

Jeanna eventually visited a doctor and was diagnosed with rabies -- a potentially fatal virus that attacks the nervous system -- and she suddenly faced a life-and-death struggle.

Jeanna's parents, John and Ann, said that when doctors told them Jeanna had rabies and there was no routine treatment, "our hearts just dropped," said John. But the Gieses told the doctors to do whatever it took to help Jeanna. "We wouldn't take no for an answer," said John.

So doctors decided to try a groundbreaking treatment. Jeanna was put into a coma and administered a cocktail of drugs to stimulate her immune system.

"I decided to temporarily suppress the functional brain and allow natural immunity to catch up," said Dr. Rodney Willoughby of the Wisconsin Children's Hospital.

Thanks to that treatment, Jeanna made history by becoming the first person to ever survive rabies without receiving the vaccine. And last week, she continued rewriting the record books, going home a month before her doctors believed she could.

Her body is recovering, and her brain is now undergoing what doctors describe as a "rebirth," as it begins to rewire itself. Nerves are reconnecting to muscles and organs, including her heart.

As part of her rehabilitation, the teen is learning to use her arms and legs again and undergoing speech therapy to speak and swallow. Although she still has a long way to go, doctors continue to be amazed by her progress.

So are her parents. "We are so proud," said her mother. "She's just fighting right along. She's a fighter."