First Time’s Always Special: Coppin’ Rabies

The Emergency Room is a humbling place. A light is snuffed out in one room, while next door a life filled with infinite possibilities has only just begun. Down the corridor, some poor bastard is having a teapot pulled out of his ass. Not to ‘spout’ truths at you, but life’s a vicious cycle.

I sit in the waiting room, watching as people are rushed in on stretchers and wheeled out with a second chance. A young woman complains about the price of parking while her mum struggles to breathe, flanked by two paramedics. I can’t pick which of my fellow patients may have a teapot wedged god-knows-where, but I have a strong suspicion it could be the middle-aged man in the back corner. He just seems like the type to fall in the shower.

The woman next to me smiles.

‘What are you in for?’ she asks. I pause — does she think I may be the token teapotter? Do I give off that vibe and, if that’s the case, how long has this been going on?

‘Rabies.’ I answer, looking in her eyes and hissing, canines bared, before bursting out in laughter. She laughs along — kind of — then focuses intently on the small TV above us. This isn’t how I planned on spending my 27th birthday.

To be completely candid, rabies isn’t the best name for my affliction. Maybies would be more appropriate. It may be rabies, it may not be, all I know is a little fucker of a feline bit me in India and now my birthday has been spent in the ER awaiting the first three of what will eventually be seven shots.

The symptoms of rabies aren’t dull. It starts with a fever, a bit of tingling, maybe some muscle weakness. Nothing too stressful. According to Dr Kylie Minogue’s 2001 hit, ‘Fever’, it could just be true love, but then things start to get weird.

In 1991, an American priest was bitten by a sick dog in Bangladesh. He sought medical attention but was told the post exposure rabies vaccination was unnecessary: the bite was too small; the likelihood of infection minimal; the Titanic unsinkable. Four months later, he had an onset of general sickness and burning pain where the bite had occurred. Three days passed before he was taken to Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, with a fever and spasms while swallowing. A preliminary diagnosis of rabies was suspected and he was transferred to a hospital in Bangkok where, upon arrival, he displayed periods of aggressive behaviours, irritability and confusion, as well as a fear of both water and flying. Nine days after his first symptoms, he fell into a coma and died.

Let’s recap those symptoms. Hydrophobia (fear of water) and aerophobia (fear of flying), spasms and, as if that’s not enough, victims may develop an intolerance to noise, bright light, or air. That’s right, an intolerance to air — even the fitness industry couldn’t manage to lump air in the same destructive category as gluten, but rabies somehow has. And that’s not even the worst part: try “a fear of impending death” on for size. Jesus Christ. Once the symptoms have developed, you’re essentially screwed as there’s no cure for rabies, you just treat every bite as if it’ll be the one to finish you.

It’s an odd feeling, monitoring yourself for signs of crazy. Priority number one, I assume, is to find a stable control group to measure up against, which is why I find myself strolling through St Kilda. I figure I’ll be able to study the regular folk going about their business and make, in my extremely limited medical knowledge, a diagnosis on just how fucked I am. Immediately, an elderly gentleman runs past chasing a car down Acland Street.

“Arse-fuck-faggot!” he screams at the top of his lungs. Professional diagnosis? Could be rabies. Could definitely be rabies. Maybe that’s what my parents’ two cavoodles are saying when barking madly at the car, watching the folks reverse down the driveway. No-one jumps out of the car to cuddle this man though, they cross the road to avoid him as if he were frothing at the mouth. Luckily, I feel no urge to chase the next car as it drives past.

Patrice (1) leads Rabies (0) by one symptom. I reckon first to three will provide a medically accurate diagnosis.

I walk along the Esplanade and head downhill to the beach. St Kilda Beach isn’t exactly celebrated worldwide. You’re more likely to catch gastro than waves, faecal matter presents a greater risk than sunburn, and the majority of crabs are generally found in the groins of visiting backpackers. That, at least, it shares with its overshadowing cousin, Bondi. International STIs aside, I’m determined to pass test #2 — hydrophobia.

The beach is busy. It’s a hot day and everyone’s still in holiday mode, but only a few people are in the water. Dickheads. There have been storms recently and the water quality forecasts range from ‘chance of poo’ to ‘faecal flood’. I stand at the edge of the water, take a deep breath and let my foot marinate in metropolitan Melbourne’s holiday waste. Not a fucking chance, that water scares the shit out of me.

Patrice (1) is tied with Rabies (1). But wait, a deep breath? That sounds like someone who is pretty tolerant of air. In fact, I’m sucking it down like a high school kid behind the bike shed.

Patrice (2) leads Rabies (1).

St Kilda Beach does have a few things going for it. The first is the penguins that take up residence on the breakwater every evening, ’cause who doesn’t love those petite Pingus. The second is even better — sunset. It’s unbeatable. Red light blazes over the Esplanade, drenching tourists and locals in an amber glaze, and I walk in its embrace up Fitzroy Street, wondering if I’m experiencing a fear of impending death or just worried about walking past the local halfway house. I’m not sold on fear of death as a symptom. Death’s inevitable, right? It could be a peaceful death in 60 years, it could be a violent ending of unprecedented magnitude in two hours when I drunkenly attempt to cuddle a penguin.

We’re lucky enough in Australia to have the opportunity to ride out those 60 years in relatively good health, even if you’re stupid enough to cop a love bite from a little furball and, for all its shortcomings, the government will still pay for your treatment. In places like Africa, however, there’s no way families living below the poverty line can afford a $40–50 round of post-exposure treatment. Half of the 50,000+ rabies deaths occur here: the majority of which are, if not curable, mostly preventable.

Sitting in my GP’s office, awaiting my final shot, I ask the obvious question.

“If, hypothetically, that cat did have rabies, will these vaccinations definitely stop it?”

“Not necessarily.” he replies cheerily.

“What are the odds I could actually get it?”

“Very low, most likely,” he reassures me, “but I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.”

Cheers Doc, bedside manner on point. He injects me for the final time: the pink liquid rushes into my body and any fear of death dissipates. Sure, there’s a slim chance I’m on a one way road to frothtown and impending death, but at least I know I’ll always be welcome in St Kilda, and that’s as close to Heaven as I’ll ever get.

Patrice (3) beats Rabies (1).