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Published On January 27, 2020

CLINICAL CARE

Worse Than Its Bite

A solo traveler is bitten by a rabid dog and must navigate her care abroad.

I love to travel. For a girl prone to panic attacks, it’s the ultimate test of my self-confidence. But that challenge became a nightmare when I went on a solo trip to Thailand and got nipped by a street dog.

The injury was small—barely a scratch. But the country has seen outbreaks of rabies, which I learned from a session of frantic Googling from my hostel bunk bed. With no one to help me and trying to stifle my worry, I discovered that I had only a short window to get a vaccine before a potential virus would set in.

I soon found myself in an emergency room in Ayutthaya, a small city outside Bangkok. I was armed with a scrawled note that read “dog bite” in Thai. The hospital was bustling and crowded. Initial examinations were happening on a plastic bench right there in the waiting room.

I got shuffled from place to place until someone on staff examined my ankle. We communicated through a mix of rapid Thai (them), tearful English (me) and wild hand gestures (the Thai grandmother seated next to me who’d become very invested in my diagnosis). They settled on giving me antibiotics, a tetanus shot and the first rabies shot.

I held it together until I felt myself getting dizzy, at which point I realized I didn’t know how to call for help in Thai. Overwhelmed and full of drugs, I collapsed.

Any doctor I’d seen in the United States would have had a fit if I had fainted in their office. But no one even noticed the 25-year-old Caucasian passed out in the examination room, on the bed where they had propped me. When I came to, they just handed me instructions with a schedule for my next four vaccine injections.

That businesslike nonchalance came as a shock to me, and it was characteristic of my next two clinic visits too, in Bangkok and Chiang Mai. Google had by now informed me that a U.S. doctor would certainly have given me a dose of rabies antibodies, an expensive ($40,000!) but reassuring weapon against infection. My first Thai doctor told me it was “too late” and the second said I was “probably fine.”

At both hospitals, I cried ragged anxiety tears, barely feeling the well-practiced nurses prick my arm. By now my confidence in finishing this Thailand trip was shaken, and at every jungle waterfall or ancient temple my anxiety told me to go home. At least there I could pepper the doctors with questions. I wouldn’t have to climb over a language barrier for conversations that were short and mostly one-sided.

But I tried to remain calm, despite the worry. And I stayed the whole trip. When I finally set foot in the United States, I was somehow calm and assured getting my fourth and fifth shots. The doctor who gave me the last one wasn’t sure he had the same brand of vaccine that the other U.S. physician had given me, and in fact had never given a rabies shot before. I think he was taken aback by my command of the protocol, and my barrage of questions.

Which vaccine was this? Did he know that I had received a Chinese rabies vaccine in Thailand, and would this be compatible? Would it work in tandem with the other U.S. vaccine? We pulled up the research on his computer and pieced it out together. It was fine, he told me, and I took a deep breath. He gave me my final shot. This time, no tears.

When the results of the rabies test came in several months later—full immunity and no sign of the virus—I took a picture of myself smiling in front of that clean bill of health. I put it in my scrapbook next to my favorite snapshot at an elephant sanctuary. Both were proof I’d been brave enough to finish out a dream trip, all by myself.