First published on Global Hobo.
I sat in a dim corner of the pub, trying to keep my saliva in and obsessively rubbing the wound. My friends were pointedly not sharing drinks with me. I was pointedly pretending not to think about my impending death.
It’s not that I was afraid of dying — I just didn’t want to die of rabies. It’s embarrassing. Rabies makes you drool, flail, bite, and spasm. It turns you into a flapping zombie, lashing rancid spittle lassos at anyone who comes close. Thanks to the hydrophobia, you’re probably not showering, either. That’s not a good death.
When I say I got rabies, most people ask me if I patted a dog. They think I’m a moron. Some ask if I was attacked by a monkey. I was, but I kicked it in the head before it could bite me. No – a tiny cat gave me rabies.
It was a normal Sunday morning in Canggu, Bali, and I was impaired only by the hand and foot I’d broken 12 hours earlier in a sunset mugging. We were in the hotel kitchen, a gaggle of antipodeans constructing a makeshift toaster out of one and a half frying pans. The Dude was small, furry, and frightened. We’d fed him before, and knew he was a G.
Unfortunately, the second cat wasn’t a G at all. It was chasing The Dude through our halls, spitting berserker howls. It came into the kitchen after our lad, who hoped we’d step in and shoo the bastard away. Old mate came past me, hit my leg and, infuriated, grabbed my hand with both paws and one long fang. It held its single, acidic tooth inside my palm for 10 excruciating seconds before bolting.
I went to give the wound a little clean, but my pals stopped me – did I have my rabies shots? I am an especially catastrophic combination of short-sighted and cheap, so I decided against getting hep A, rabies and typhoid shots for my visit. Guess who got bit? This guy.
Starting to worry I had a fatal communicable disease, I gave my assistant editor a call; he’s the expert. I described the attack, and could hear him rubbing his temples through the computer.
“Yeah, I don’t want to be a downer,” he said, “but that sounds a lot like a rabies bite.”
The previous evening, I’d had my money, cards, and phone stolen, alongside a lot of skin-and-bone integrity, so getting to the hospital was going to be a hassle – but it had to be done. My angelic mates weren’t about to let me die foaming and gnashing, so they loaded me into a car and sped me away to the recommended hospital in Kuta.
They were all out of rabies treatments, which are, unsurprisingly, popular. Onwards we hobbled, along the street to the next hospital.
If you haven’t had a rabies vaccine (and even if you have, to be honest), you have 48 hours to seek treatment. This consists of four injections of the vaccine spread out over a month, and a shot of immunoglobulin administered within the week of your first injection to help the vaccine bind to the virus before it can enter your central nervous system. In Bali, immunoglobulin costs thousands of dollars – about $850AUD for every 15 kilograms that you weigh.
Even if I hadn’t been mugged the day before, I couldn’t pay it. My insurance was telling me they’d reimburse my medical costs – not cover them immediately. I still had to pay for x-rays on my hand and foot. I would be back in New Zealand in five days, so would have to get my immunoglobulin then.
In the meantime, I was banned from sharing food or drinks with anyone, which was actually upsetting. I couldn’t offer anyone water. I wasn’t allowed to spit on anyone. My broken hand and foot gave me Biblical woodcut leper steeze, completing the diseased outcast look. I also seriously thought I was going to die.
In humans, rabies symptoms can emerge any time between one week and seven years after infection. The symptoms start like many other illnesses: muscle ache, nausea, headaches. Within days, this turns into seizures, hydrophobia (fear of water), hallucinations, spasms, and aggression. Paralysis often overcomes the victim before they die of encephalitis (Big Head). Fewer than 10 people worldwide have ever survived rabies.
The cat that bit me was spotted on and off the next few days, always aggressive but never drooling. It eventually disappeared. I hoped maybe it had gone to have a litter of lovely kittens, instead of to die a spasmodic and frothy death.
During my second visit to the hospital, the waiting room had another person on their rabies course. He said the dog that bit him was confirmed dead of rabies. This did not improve my outlook.
When I finally arrived at Kiwi customs, I was two shots in – three to go. The sniffer beagle looked at me sadly, knowing I was smuggling in Death alongside my extra joss. After dropping my backpack at a motorhome I’d found to squat in, I headed straight to hospital. The longer I exposed rabies-free Aotearoa society to my septic body, the more likely I would end up in the papers as Patient Zero, and on Facebook Live during my death throes.
If it weren’t for that cat, I’d never have bothered to get that first x-ray, which I carried in a giant paper envelope to show the NZ hand surgeons. They were grateful, because halfway through my consultation, the radiography department caught on fire. The sponge-and-bandage cast my Balinese doctor created had done a fine job, but they said I’d still need a screw if I ever wanted to punch a motorcycle again. This didn’t bother me as much, because they also told me they didn’t have any rabies vaccines. Who needs a hand when you’re dead?
I was evacuated from the burning hospital with half a cast around my hand and a bloodstream emptying of antibodies. I had 36 hours to get my next shot. Six were spent calling travel doctors all over the region, and three went into filling out accident compensation forms.
As you can tell, I’m still alive and, presumably, immune to rabies. You can be, too – with no bites, no breaks, and no risk of burning. Find out more about rabies and how to avoid dying like a medieval dog here.