Her parents cleaned the superficial wound and she says they did not believe it was necessary to seek further medical treatment. "We never thought of rabies," she says. By the time Giese began displaying signs of rabies three weeks later—fatigue, double vision, vomiting and tingling in her left arm—it was too late for the antirabies vaccine cocktail.
Instead of giving her up for dead, the doctors decided to "shut the brain down and wait for the cavalry to come" by inducing a coma to give her own immune system time to build up antibodies against the virus, says Rodney Willoughby, an infectious disease specialist who treated Giese at the Children's Hospital of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. Willoughby devised the treatment credited with saving Giese there, which has since become known as the Milwaukee protocol.
Rabies kills by compromising the brain's ability to regulate breathing, salivation and heartbeat; ultimately, victims drown in their own spit or blood, or cannot breathe because of muscle spasms in their diaphragms. One fifth die from fatal heart arrhythmia. Doctors believed that Giese might survive if they suppressed her brain function by sedating her while her immune system attacked the rabies virus.
This was the first time the therapy was attempted, and doctors had no clue if it would work or, if it did, whether it would leave her brain damaged. But Willoughby says it was the only chance doctors had of saving her.
When she arrived at the hospital, Giese couldn't talk, sit or stand and fell in and out of consciousness—she also needed to be intubated to help her breathe. "She was critically ill," Willoughby recalls, "and looked as if she might die within the day."
In addition to inducing the coma, doctors also gave her the antivirals ribavarin and amantadine. They tapered off the anesthetics after about a week, when tests showed that Giese's immune system was battling the virus. For about six months after awakening from the coma, physicians also gave her a compound called tetrahydrobiopterin that is chemically similar to the B-complex vitamin folic acid, which may have improved her speech and ability to eat, Willoughby says.
He notes that physicians gave her the supplement after tests showed that she had a deficiency of the compound, which is known to boost production of serotonin and dopamine neurotransmitters needed to perform motor, speech and other routine bodily functions.