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Rodney Versus Death

Tuesday, August 13, 2013 - 05:00 PM


What do you do in the face of a monstrous disease with a 100% fatality rate? In this short, a Milwaukee doctor tries to knock death incarnate off its throne.

In the fall of 2004, Jeanna Giese checked into the Children's Hospital of Wisconsin with a set of puzzling symptoms ... and her condition was deteriorating fast. By the time Dr. Rodney Willoughby saw her, he only knew one thing for sure: if Jeanna's disturbing breakdown turned out to be rabies, she was doomed to die.

What happened next seemed like a medical impossibility. Producer Tim Howard tells Jeanna's story and talks to authors Monica Murphy and Bill Wasik, and scientists Amy Gilbert and Sergio Recuenco, while trying to unravel the mystery of an unusual patient, and a doctor who dared to take on certain death.

Read more:

Rabid: A Cultural History of the World's Most Diabolical Virus, by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy

"Undead: The Rabies Virus Remains a Medical Mystery," Wired article by Monica Murphy and Bill Wasik

"Bats Incredible: The Mystery of Rabies Survivorship Deepens," Wired article by Monica Murphy and Bill Wasik

"Study Detects Rabies Immune Response in Amazon Populations," the CDC's page on Amy Gilbert and Sergio Recuenco's work (inc. photos from Peru)

"Selection Criteria for Milwaukee Protocol," when to try the Milwaukee Protocol

Jeanna Giese's website


Dr. Amy Gilbert, Tim Howard, Monica Murphy, Dr. Sergio Recuenco, Bill Wasik and Dr. Rodney Willoughby


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Comments [79]

Armando García from Metepec, Mexico State, Mexico

Stepping on the fiction side then Justin Cronin and Chuck Palahniuk are not that far fetched.

Aug. 07 2016 08:19 PM
Carson from China

I feel for this girl, and I only wish her the very best, but I have to wonder why they didn't seek medical attention immediately after she was bitten. Growing up in the country where I was surrounded by animals, it was basically common knowledge that if you were bitten by an animal you should go to a doctor to be checked and subsequently monitored for signs of rabies. I just wonder why this family didn't seek medical attention for their daughter immediately upon her being bitten by the bat. I believe they said the bite was on her finger, which would be visible. It seems I'm the outlier--a person with knowledge about how to handle animal bites--, but if that's the case, people need to be better educated about proper protocol for animal bites. It's a really intense story and again I feel for this girl and her family.

Jun. 06 2015 12:46 PM
Ted from California

At one point in the pod-cast, Jad wonders why the idea to apply a rooster's anus to a rabid animal bite would survive being tested. Jad forgets that before people like Galileo and Leonardo developed the ideas we now think of as "the scientific method", ideas weren't evaluated that way. We'd think it strange today, but people bought into sympathetic medicine ideas. Jad could have added a very interesting segment on how people didn't always think scientifically (and plenty alive today still don't, sad to say).

Mar. 07 2015 05:16 PM
Josette Plank

My rabies story, nine months pregnant:

Mar. 03 2015 05:41 PM
Jessica Cejnar from Crescent City, CA

About four years ago a little girl in Willow Creek, CA contracted rabies:

Feb. 18 2015 11:19 AM
mike from Boston from Boston

I hope the best for Gina. From the little I know of her, I'd say that she should at least look into doing hyperbaric oxygen, or HBOT. It's something that will undoubtedly help her recover...probably to a great degree. It's a shame that doctors do not bring up the benefits of HBOT, and I know from experience that it's ahead of its time. But, it's simply high-dose oxygen (nothing like oxygen through a nasal canula or hydrogen peroxide or things like that); oxygen under pressure (hbot) is more effective at re-enabling idling neurons than any drug on the mark, but that's what the doctors will push, unfortunately. My heart goes out to her, and I hope she discovers HBOT at some point. A good site for starters is, or the facebook page, both in Boston.

Feb. 15 2015 03:17 PM
Sandy Godwin from Chesapeake, Va.

in the 1970s, while living outside D .C., I read an account of a young patient ( I do not remember if boy or girl) from the surrounding area in the Sunday Washington Post Magazine. For some reason, I believe it was a Maryland suburb, but this youngster had been bitten by a rabid bat....and when taken to the hospital ( Children's ?) , the doctors realized they could not do anything but treat the symptoms by anticipating them and applying the best available treatment. The reason this story was news worthy , was that the patient survived. That is 30 years before your story today ( 2004) and I was surprised to hear this young woman described as the first person to survive rabies. By the maternal great grandfather died of rabies (1898 ?) in Matthews County Va. Bitten by a rabid dog or fox, he had 2 share croppers on his land lock him in the barn until he died.

Feb. 11 2015 04:02 PM
Elizabeth King from FL

Honestly, I love wild animals, and I have my rabies shots up to date, so I see no problem with picking up a wild animal. One thing this podcast taught me was that rabies was incurable, I had no clue. The way the parents prayed for Jeanna to get better reminded me of times long ago when all you could do was pray to God and hope he would answer. I also thought it was pretty miraculous that she survived as well. Her doctor, Dr. Rodney Willoughby, I thought was a good man for at least trying, even when a cure was unknown. He could have let her die, but instead he pulled through.

Jan. 12 2015 10:30 PM
Listener from MN

Excellent program.
Towards the end, in regards of % success ...if 5 out 30 survived using the Milwaukee protocol ...should it be 83% death rate..i.e from the initial 100% death rate down to 83%

Dec. 22 2014 12:15 PM
Virginia N. Plath from United States

I am surprised that the girl's parents actually let her pick up a wild animal. That would have solved the problem before it even happened. I found this very interesting. I had no idea that rabbis is incurable for the most part. I think if I were told that my child was dying I would do anything to give her a chance at life. Obviously sometimes being risky works.

Nov. 10 2014 09:40 PM
Anna Chaucer

Jeanna should have been taken to the doctor and gotten a rabies vaccine immeadiately after being bitten by the bat. This is common sense when you are bitten by a wild animal! She really should not have caught the bat at all! If anyone had thought of that, this whole story would never have happened. Despite all that, I was glad Dr.Rodney tried to give Jeanna a chance instead of doing nothing. It is always good to try to do something in a case like this; it helps comfort everyone involved to know that they did not just stand by and watch if the paitent does end up not making it.

Nov. 02 2014 03:44 PM
Miranda from Ohio

Spasms of rage are common among people who have rabies. The brain is spared, everything is normal once the person dies. The immune system fights the disease but it’s too late. The virus moves more quickly than the immune system. If you could buy time for the immune system then they might be able to save the person with rabies. Jeanna’s immune system was able to get rid of the rabies but in the beginning she was a vegetable. She was able to come through, and is now living a normal life, she can’t do everything she used to do. Because it wasn’t her time. She fought death and won. She doesn’t let death have a hold over her life. She looks death in the eye, at the zoo, pets it and feeds it.

Her illness was a parallel with the illness that Tea Cake goes through in “Their Eyes Were Watching God” Both Tea Cake and this girl were trying to help another when they got bit. Their efforts were completely innocent. Devastation came from their doing good. Both, once bitten they both received this illness that was fatal. Both Janie and her parents received the news that they couldn’t do anything. Their loved ones had to be put in care and just wait and watch them die. Neither Tea Cake or her had ability of speech once they had the illness for so long. Tea Cake died because they didn’t have technology at the time but he looked at the dog like Jeanna looks at bats. He wasn’t afraid of the dog, he was just doing the right thing. Death still affects those who do good things. It was his time to die, he had no more purpose in life. He had given Janie everything he could give her. God gives life but he also takes it away. Jeanna was still young, she still had a purpose in life, her rabies may have been a lesson to be learned that saves many lives. They wouldn’t have discovered that they could cure rabies without the vaccination, she was immunologically special. Her near death experience served a purpose to save many lives.

Oct. 16 2014 07:50 PM
Asger Peder Mortensen from Copenhagen, Denmark

No comment on Gina actually becoming batgirl? no?.. allright then

Jul. 31 2014 03:48 AM
Alexsys Smith from Salt Lake City, Utah

I think that everyone seems to be overreacting on the religion thing. I am an anti-theist, but I'm not against people and their choices for coping with certain situations. Radiolab never acknowledged the religious discussion, but they included it because they felt as though it was part of the story for the doctor and the parents. To me, it wasn't distracting. Perhaps I'm too used to ignoring the reference to prayer in my overly predominant religious culture in Salt Lake City, Utah. The ONLY praise I heard was of the happenstance of the daughter having a particular immune system and the luck of the doctor. That said, I thought Radiolab gave a fair view for all parties in this story. Everyone should just chill. :)

Jul. 24 2014 03:40 PM
Alina from Melbourne, Australia

Yep, I think one thing they're probably learning at Radiolab is that American style references to prayer and religion are considered extremist by the rest of the world. There's no surprise that parents fearing the death of their child pray for their deliverance. Yet the decision by Radiolab to emphasise this towards the end of the broadcast was out of proportion to its importance in the big picture of the story of rabies.

Jun. 21 2014 01:10 PM

I downloaded a lot of Radio Lab podcasts, and have been listening to them one after another, but after this one (my 10th or so), I'm ready to give up. What is with all the religion and religious references? And seriously, the poor kid's parents didn't think of getting that kid to the hospital immediately??

May. 03 2014 11:19 PM
Nick from Adelaide, Australia

It's ironic that she was bit in church and then they end up praying for her. While the only people actually helping her were her doctor's. If only she didn't have to go to church in the first place.

Apr. 28 2014 08:59 PM
Thomas Antczak from Salt Lake City, Utah

I really enjoyed this story considering i was bit by a raccoon and ended up getting rabies myself. Keep up the great work, I love it all!

Mar. 31 2014 03:24 PM
Gina Clingerman from Lander, WY

Listening to this podcast I was struck by how much Jeanna Giese was srtuggling to come back to her normal physical body. I was hoping that her family may see this or that you could recommned yoga to them. There are several stories of how yoga has helped people come back from debilitating diseases like spinal menigitis (see Sadie Nardini story) and other stories Ana Forrest was born a cripple and is now an amazing yoga teacher. Yoga helps develop muscle and balance. I hope they give it a try.

Mar. 28 2014 04:21 PM
Marty from Austin, TX

My high-school anatomy students enjoyed listening to this broadcast. One of them told me "I never thought listening to the radio could be so interesting!". Kudos to you, you're doing a great job!

Mar. 19 2014 03:09 PM
Eldad Haber

This is by far, the best podcast I have heard!

My had my kids listen to it.
The reaction of my 10 year old daughter was "I'm speechless!"
her sister (12) has now listen to this podcast for at least 10 times.

Thank you for this amazing work

Mar. 19 2014 12:49 AM

Good episode. Thanks.
+1 Wedging in the mention of prayer for mass appeal isn't necessary.

Feb. 24 2014 09:43 AM
Lisa from Florida

This was a fascinating story. I used to be compelled to move road kill off the road so I did not have to see it smushed or ripped apart when I passed that way again.I was even known to give these poor victims of human negligence a respectful burial, as well as saving a few lives. A couple years ago my husband pointed out that I could be putting myself at risk of contracting rabies by handling dead animals. I had never considered this before and decided that it was best that I reconsider my actions. I am pleased to say that I never contracted rabies, to my knowledge. The wondered at times if I could have somehow contacted the virus, but not gotten sick had crossed my mind, but seemed an impossibility. The Idea of having a natural immunity to such a deadly virus, FASCINATING! Would love to hear more about people with a seeming natural immunity to rabies.
I LOVE Radio Lab, always an engaging story! However, I fully believe in free speech, but found the excessive discussion of a character in a story using prayer to deal with their stress a big bummer!

Feb. 23 2014 12:07 AM
Keith Finn from Columbus, OH

You need to do better research! I am from Lima, Ohio. In 1970, a 6 year boy named Matthew Winkler contracted rabies from a bat bite. He developed the disease, but the staff at St Rita's hospital treated each symptom until the crisis passed. My mother was a nurse at St Rita's, and there was much excitement over his recovery. Today, Matt is 49 years old and still lives in the Willshire OH area.

Here is a link to a Toledo Blade newspaper article m/newspapers?nid=1350&dat=19701222&id=YvcjAAAAIBAJ&sjid=5QEEAAAAIBAJ&pg=5848,2558693

Here is a link to a Ottowa, , OH News story,7021338

I have not been able to find the Lima paper articles online, but here is a recap by a local writer

There was also a Readers Digest article, but I cannot find an archive of the story.

Feb. 22 2014 01:06 PM
Jon Donnis

Fascinating and as a gay psychic medium, I am not impressed easily!

Jon Donnis

Feb. 20 2014 12:08 PM
Professor Rayfield Waller from Arctic Detroit

...(cont'd) Television shows and movies in the vein of "Stargate" are the most offensive, and have the most efficacy in my students' young lives, but the persistence of the older, British Edwardian and American Teddy Roosevelt strains is a troubling reality I often discuss in class. I may be missing something--I will give the episode another listen, and re-read the webpage post because you may have clarified your use of this image, but either way I would love to share with you a very interesting author who has written two startlingly creative 'anthropological romances' (I call them that--romance is a refreshing alternative to dread and fear!) that are full of erotic mythos influenced by her love of ancient Egyptian culture and antiquity. One of her books details her childhood fascination with Egypt. Her name is Maria Isabel Pita, a Cuban American, author of a biographical novel of the female Pharaoh and warrior Hatshepsut-Maatkare, "Truth is the Soul of the Sun" and of "Dreams of Anubis": I would like to suggest her as a subject for one of your future broadcasts. She is by no means what I would consider an exhaustive scholar or anthropologist; she is in fact a writer of erotica (so in some ways controversial--I wouldn't teach most of her works at a public college!) But her books about Egyptian subjects, though from the point of view of an outsider to Egypt, are creative. She is just simply a wonderful voice in these two books, and her feelings about ancient Egypt are of great, provocative sincerity. I've never met her, so I have no personal interest in lauding her; she is, as an American citizen whose parents came here from Cuba, an example of the multi-cultural ideal of America that I have always striven to support and encourage as a university lecturer. You should give her the Radiolab sound and sensorium treatment! She is just odd enough and edgy enough to fit your modus, I think, because you guys are not exactly the 'safe' side of public radio. Otherwise, this being my first comment on your page despite being a loyal listener for years, I'd like to say thanks for your consistently thoughtful, entertaining, informative, and inventive programming. Long live.

Jan. 08 2014 10:57 AM
Professor Rayfield Waller from Detroit urban arctic

The quality of the episode notwithstanding (Radiolab is always quite wonderful) I must say I was taken aback by the horrible racism and cultural appropriation of the image of Anubis, ancient Egyptian god not of 'death' OR rabies (!) but of the sacred acts of burial. He is patron of a very technologically and chemically sophisticated mummification process, and of the afterlife. The forensic act of cutting open the body, surrounded in ritual and in spiritual meaning, was one of the crucial aspects of embalming, and Anubis was the portent and the icon of this act. Present-day physicians, surgeons particularly, adhere to and practice antique ethics of conduct very much influenced by Egypt's ancient proto-humanist philosophy, carried from Egypt to ancient Greece and transmitted from the Greeks to we moderns here in the present. Anubis is thus a sacred and meaningful figure in the religious pantheon of the Old Kingdom. He was depicted not as having a dog's head, as is often alleged by unknowing modern historians and illustrators, but as having the head of a dessert jackal. Now, the ugliness and monstrosity of the image you used is typical of the enthno-centrism and cultural hysteria of a (renegade, distaff) British anthropological tradition of appropriation of, theft of, and hostility toward all of antiquity, most especially Egypt's pre-Ptolemaic, ancient culture of the Old Kingdom. I imagine you sought out images on the internet (Wikipedia, it appears) simply to illustrate your episode, but as an African American professor who lectures on history and Africana Studies at Wayne State University, I was really left feeling unsettled by your un-commented upon use of this stock ethno-phobic, slavering, inaccurate image (arising out of the same genus as the Edwardian 'yellow peril' tabloid pen-and-ink illustrations of 'evil' Chinese figures). I just last semester lectured my Africana Studies students on the need to be more conscious of the semiotics of cultural representation in commercial culture regarding African, aboriginal, and Asian peoples and histories, and on the damage done by even unintentional but pervasive stereotypes.

Jan. 08 2014 10:56 AM
pandorla from Eugene Oregon

What kind of parents let their child get bit by a wild animal and don't immediately take them to the hospital for the vaccine!? She would have been fine if she had parents who weren't complete idiots. That poor girl!

Dec. 27 2013 06:40 PM
Jim from smithfield, Virignia

I bothers me that no one discusses how it is that rabies virus is in the saliva yet only seems to travel along the nerves. It it's in the saliva, then the body should be developing antibodies to fight it. In fact antibodies are discussed in this presentation, but the quantity is thought to be too small at first and a coma supposedly allows for both an increase and interaction with the virus to remove it. Might the blood-brain barrier be a major issue rather than antibody quantity in that the antibodies can't cross the barrier to destroy the virus in the brain?

Nov. 14 2013 03:53 PM

Why is this episode titled "Rodney Versus Death", if we're ultimately unsure about the role of the Milwaulkee protocol in the recovery of those who survive rabies?
An overemphasis on the agency of the doctor; ignoring the patient's own body as the causal source of recovery.

Oct. 29 2013 06:11 PM

Dear Radiolab, this is yet another excellent story. Please ignore all the anti-theists complaining about the use of religion in your stories. I am an atheist, which of course means without religion. It does not, however, mean against religion, that would be anti-theist. I think some atheists should realize that they are not atheists at all, but anti-theists. I loved the parts of the story that included prayer, it added to the texture of the story. Why pretend that religion doesn't exist when it does? It is a part of all of our stories regardless of if we choose to believe in a God or not. To stick our fingers in our ears and yell "naaa naaa I can't hear you" every time religion is brought up is silly at best.

Oct. 27 2013 09:32 AM
Neverspent from California

Just heard this interesting podcast. I too wonder, why on earth the mention of prayer occurs twice in the broadcast? The implication is that Jenna's cure was actually God's answer to prayer. What startled me is that no one in the episode connected praying for a cure to the arcane practice of applying a rooster's anus to a rabid bite, which to me is an obvious and appropriate comparison. If "miracle-of-God" was not the intended implication of the prayer segments, what WAS the implication? Tim says he was just reporting on the personalities involved. Why didn't he report instead on what exercises the parents and doctors did to relieve their stress? Or what they ate? Or how much sleep they got? Those data would have had about as much bearing on his story.
I wish Jad and Robert would stop inserting these dog-whistle "ads" for spirituality and faith-in-the-supernatural into their otherwise informative broadcasts.

Oct. 01 2013 02:32 AM
Sara G

Facinating story!

Sep. 30 2013 01:46 PM

Sep. 17 2013 08:17 PM

Fascinating story. I remember hearing about her on the news, but the time, she was still recovering. So glad to hear of her full recovery. Thank you for allowing the family to tell their story, including the prayers that seemed to cause some people a lot of distress. The prayers are a part of their story, and to cut out that part because of some desire to be more scientific (or for whatever reason) would be a travesty. And, incidentally, the ancient "Jesus prayer" mentioned in the story has been practiced by Orthodox Christian monks in a meditative way for centuries - and they are some of the healthiest people on the earth

Sep. 13 2013 08:34 PM
Kat from Belfast

I was just wondering if you could clarify something - does Jeanna have to learn to walk again, learn to make her body do what it used to do and be completely rehabilitated because of what the rabies did to her nervous system? Or was there anything about her being induced into a coma that caused this? I assume it's the former but I just wanted to check. Thanks.

Sep. 10 2013 09:02 AM


I agree with you. I am an atheist, and if I am to be truly honest, I find my intial reaction to hearing prayer put in stories of this nature to be one of discomfort, repulsion, and outlandishness. I ask myself 'why/how is this relevant at all?'

However, after my initial reaction, I have to take a step back and appreciate, this is a story about people's lives; the storytellers felt (for whatever reasons) that prayer was important within the context of this story. We live in a religious country and prayer is a big part of people's lives; it would be foolish of me to negate it, rather I strive to accept, and be open to understanding that for some people of the world - spiritualness is important. I have to respact that their views are different than my own, otherwise, I am no better than the intolerant-of-others ultra-conservative religious right wings.

This is a story afterall. Storytelling is an art.

Sep. 09 2013 04:25 PM

I didn't think I would ever hear a rabies story scarier than the one produced by "This American Life" a few years ago ("Act One:" ), but this one takes the cake. However, anyone who is interested in public health and/or their own safety should listen to the (also very scary) TAL broadcast as well, because it describes how difficult it can be to actually get the vaccine: not all hospitals keep it on hand, and it must be administered within 72 hours after a bite. Yes, LESS THAN THREE DAYS.

Sep. 09 2013 02:06 AM

Hey there RadioLab,

I'm sitting here at George Washington University Hospital waiting to get vaccinated for rabies. Yesterday morning, I opened my front door and wound up with a bat on my head. While I'm normally cautious, I cannot be 100% sure I would have done what I did next unless I'd just listened to this show. I immediately called Animal Control who came and got the bat. I then had to lobby a bit to get the Department of Health to test it for rabies. Well, it came back positive 2 hours ago and I've been in the ER ever since.

I tend to second guess my instincts which in this case was to call Animal Control--instincts I may have talked myself out of just last week. I also tend go with the flow and in this case the flow was that "we don't really have the bat strand of rabies in Northern Virginia". But the fact that this was so fresh on my mind and your show really did hit home just how terrible rabies is...I advocated for myself and may well have been saved from a terrible fate.

Sep. 06 2013 07:42 PM

Excellent broadcast! The part that left me wondering for days afterwards is the lack of medical attention after being bitten by a bat. How did that escape the teen, the parents, and every single person at the church? Since listening to the podcast last weekend I've asked numerous people what they'd do if they or someone they were with was bitten by a wild animal. Every single person has said they'd go to the doctor because of the possibility of rabies. I'm baffled that this teen didn't receive the care she should have early on.

Sep. 06 2013 01:58 PM
John from Chicago

People who pray do so for many reasons. to beseech a Higher Power for help. To offer thanks. To seek peace, understanding, and strength in the face of trying circumstances. Someone who believes in prayer might expect his or her prayers to result in a specific favorable result. Or not. Suggesting that one only prays out of desperation when all scientific methods fail is naive, and shows a complete lack of understanding of prayer and those who engage in it.

My point is not to discuss the efficacy of prayer as a source of healing, (though there have been studies on the subject, and the results might surprise you,) but to suggest that for a believer, prayer at a time of crisis is not only appropriate, but completely natural.

That is a difficult thing for one who does not pray to understand, but that is how it is. No one is compelled to pray, and obviously, some such as yourself choose not to do so. However, it strikes me as equally wrong to expect people for whom prayer is a significant part of their lives to hide it away and not mention it, lest atheists might be offended.

Sep. 03 2013 03:24 PM

Praying is not an appropriate response. Praying is giving up. Science and research is what saves people are on death's bed.

Aug. 31 2013 08:20 PM
John from Chicago


Well, first this show is produced in the United States, where we are considerably more religious than you folks in the UK, so that probably accounts for the fact that people are more likely to mention their religious beliefs.

But your question suggests another view, which I find troubling: the suggestion that religious people should not mention their views or make reference to faith, because it will annoy someone. In this story, both the parents and doctor make reference to praying for this child's recovery. That is a pretty understandable and appropriate reaction to a child dying of rabies. I believe mentioning it in the story illustrated the emotional state of the participants. Neither the parents nor medical professionals tried to suggest that the patient's recovery was the result of divine intervention, though of course people of faith could see it that way.

Like other people of faith, I believe that my faith is a vital part of my personality and my view of the world. I have no desire to enforce my beliefs on anyone, nor do I feel any obligation to hide them. If they offend you, get over it.

Aug. 29 2013 05:08 PM
Derek from London


I have been a Radiolab fan for years now, but it seems to me that religious content in the show is getting more prominent. There's the pointless mentioning of prayer in this, the rabies show, there was the groom who 'lost' his faith, the couple with the threatened abortion and more.

I find it surprising that this show is caving in into this trend and would have hoped the producers of Radiolab are a little more enlightened.


Aug. 27 2013 11:55 AM

@David from California:
Of course viruses have an agenda just like every other living organism: reproduction. Think natural selection - just because the rabies virus did not evolve a consciousness (now that would be scary) does not mean that they couldn't evolve traits that maximized their chances of spreading their genes by infecting the brains of it's victims and causing behavioral changes. It's simple evolutionary science. Oh, unless one believes that god made the rabies virus in it's present form and put it on this earth to, um, er, help me here creationists (Robert), why did god make the rabies virus? So we could say prayers for it's victims and then verify god's existence when they are cured?
I really wish Radiolab would stop with the religious proselytizing. aside from it being annoying, it's got to be bad business. I bet the vast majority of your current audience is blue state, not bible belt. At the rate you're going though that could change rapidly.
Except for the religious mumbo-jumbo, I liked this episode.

Aug. 26 2013 10:55 PM
Kurt Helf from Bowling Green, KY

Excellent, as usual, but I didn't see the bloody point including the prayers. It didn't add *anything* to the story and it looked like pandering. In fact, it detracted from it because the credulous will attribute the girl's recovery, in part or entirely, to the prayers. The rest of us shake our heads and ask "What was the point?"
Looking forward to your live show at TPAC, by the way.

Aug. 24 2013 10:52 AM
David from California

Just have to point out viruses do not have an agenda driving those infected to avoid water or to bite people. Infectious diseases don't take control of the host. Otherwise intriguing episode if just a bit overproduced (but it's radiolab after all).

Aug. 23 2013 11:52 PM
Amanda from Florida

Also, that was an amazing, amazing episode. I'm definitely buying that book.

Aug. 23 2013 03:16 PM
Amanda from Florida

I was wondering, is it possible that the Peruvians are somehow neurologically special instead of immunologically special? Or have some other neurological factor going on? What if they experience at least minor symptoms of the disease, and there is something in their DNA or environment (for at least some of them) that actually dampens them a bit neurologically, allowing the immune system to catch up faster than most of us? Thus, they don't need the coma or even the major symptoms for the immune system to catch up on time.

Aug. 23 2013 03:14 PM
Diccon Hyatt from Princeton, NJ

Excellent, fascinating and horrifying episode. The sound of the screaming rabies victims was almost unbearable to listen to. Listening to this episode inspired me to do some further reading on Rabies, and I found out that about 20,000 people die of the disease in India every year, partly because of "Puppy Pregnancy Syndrome," which is a mass delusion in which people believe they are pregnant with puppies after being bitten by a dog.

Because of the delusion, people go to witch doctors instead of real doctors to cure them of the puppies, and they end up dying of rabies.

Aug. 23 2013 10:41 AM

Makes me wonder if the first victim Louis Pasteur treated, Joseph Meister, a 9 year old boy who had been mauled by a rabid dog, might have been one of these autoimmune individuals theorized by the story? From the biographies of Pasteur I read, the boy was dying of rabies and Pasteur was reluctant to treat him for both legal and ethical reasons. Pasteur only administered the vaccine after colleagues pointed out the boy was certain to die without treatment. I know Joseph was fully recovered 3 months later. I don't recall any details as to the extent of the infection at the time treatment started. I'm going to have to go back to the historical accounts and look for indicators now.

Aug. 21 2013 01:08 AM
Kelly from Newark, DE

Near the end of the conversation they do talk about the rabies vaccine series people can get after they have been bitten. They don't say specifically how high the rate of recovery is with this series of shots (somewhere between 5-6 shots). So if people are questioning the Milwaukee Protocol (because they might want to WAIT and test for natural immunity), and that a bite from a potentially rabid animal is a medical urgency and not an emergency, what are the stats on survivability for rabies vaccine post-exposure for various lengths of time? It seems some medical researchers say the vaccine might not even be recommended.

Aug. 20 2013 10:10 PM
Kelly from Newark, DE

Alex, you were correct about Bright Moments (Kelly Pratt & co.) "Milwaukee" song.

Aug. 20 2013 09:43 PM
Micah Alcorn from Norman, OK

Best Radiolab in recent memory. Riveting.

Aug. 20 2013 08:38 PM
nick from San Francisco

Certainly with 2 young children of my own, after listening to this terrifying tale, I will of course make a call to my pediatrician if this or any other animal bite happens.

But this comment is directed @ VG from New York who mentioned that even her/his 5 year old is smarter than these parents for her superior knowledge of Rabies.

I just want to say maybe the kid knows about animal bites, but whether that will help or not....that is NOT guaranteed.


I remember I got bit by a mouse in the field across the street when I was about 10 years old. I DID NOT TELL MY PARENTS, BECAUSE I THOUGHT I WAS GOING TO DIE FROM RABIES. A few days later when I was still alive, I 'knew' I was fine.
Kid logic is totally wrong some times, and no matter what fear mongering techniques are used in the public education system or by parents, they cannot always be expected to do the right thing.

Just remember that when you think your 5 year old will come and tell you that she thinks she is about to die from a mouse bite.

Aug. 20 2013 11:36 AM
Matthew Spencer-Kociol

Well I know the critics are saying that the milwaukee protocol isn't working because only people with a natural immunity will survive, but shouldn't it be obvious that that the milwaukee protocol is more of a symptomatic treatment? You have to realize that it may not be the rabies that is killing people, but the horrifying side effects impacting the nervous system. Clearly the induced coma allowed the young woman to survive the worst stages of rabies until it somehow resolved itself.

Aug. 19 2013 09:48 PM

Fascinating, gripping (and terrifying) story. Thank you, Rabiolab, for letting us in on the latest about treatment of this disease. Well-told and, again, utterly fascinating for this bio-sciences geek.

This exemplifies one of the things I love best about you: the way you provoke and inform your listenership about cutting edge research and other interesting discoveries.

Aug. 19 2013 05:44 PM
Veronica from Tecate

Very interesting thank you guys.

People cope however best they can cope, especially if it's a daughter that is in danger, so they prayed, who are we to judge that?

I don't think the message here was to give any weight to praying, but just to tell the story as it happened. That the parents were slow!!! to react at their daughter's bite, no denial. I am sure they sorely regret this.

That some Peruvians in the Amazon Rain Forest have developed some sort of immunity to Rabies is exciting. I would love to see a follow-up on this part of the story. Go to Peru guys, find out more details about these group of people, my people. I better watch out when I go back home.

Gracias for a delightful story.

Aug. 19 2013 04:50 PM

I got a chill listening to the most recent podcast, specifically at the point when Tim mentioned the name of Dr. Willoughby's procedure. Until that moment, I knew the phrase "Milwaukee Protocol" only as the title of an excellent song by the band Bright Moments. The cryptic chorus of this song pleads "Don't be afraid/It doesn't hurt/It's only water." Suddenly, this refrain made sense, and I realized that the song I had been singing along to for almost two years was about rabies (specifically, the symptom of hydrophobia). When I listened to the song again, I realized the lyrics are actually about Jeanna Giese specifically (other lyrics include "Now they want to put you to sleep/I'll see you in November"). Anyway, I thought this might interest you. I really enjoyed this episode. Here is a link to the song, if you're interested:

Aug. 19 2013 03:33 PM
Randall Snyder

So are these parents off the hook because they prayed to Jebus instead of having the basic sensibility to get a rabies vaccine after their daughter was bitten by a strangely behaving flying rodent???

Aug. 18 2013 09:26 PM
VG from New York

I was disturbed by two aspects of this story:

1.) What is wrong with these parents?? Even my five-year-old knows that getting bitten by a bat - especially a bat that appears in daytime and is acting strangely - is a medical emergency. The mother who "just washed" the wound and didn't mention it is impossibly dim. What's even more incredible is that when her daughter has double vision and other symptoms, she treats it like some routine thing rather than the emergency it was. It's a miracle that she made it through her childhood intact.

2.) The prayer part is just annoying - I think the irony that she was infected while "in a house of god" was totally lost on the mother. The praying doctor is just silly. The New England Journal of Medicine helped guide his medical judgment more than god.

Aug. 18 2013 08:43 AM
Jon Donnis from Greece

Mu who has yet made another fake account of forests and Frank Camper, it's clear you are J@mes to. Stop pretending to be different people! Live and let be.

Aug. 18 2013 08:40 AM
frank camper from Canada

Leslie Flint was a genuine medium, I communicated with spirits with him. He told me that my brother eveshi was going to grow up and become a military man! It happened!

Aug. 17 2013 03:27 PM
forests from UK or New Zealand whatever

Religion and spirits had nothing to do with this nor any 'medium' as all mediumship is fake. It was sceince and as a former student who studied sceince I can explain it all if I had the time.

Darryl Forests
aka J@mes

Aug. 17 2013 12:29 PM
Aaron Bentley from Toronto, Canada

I enjoyed this podcast, but I think you missed a possibility. Dr. Willoughby says the Milwaukee protocol is saving 20% of patients, but others are claiming those patients have special immune systems and the protocol is irrelevant. If we extrapolate, this means that 20% of people who exhibit rabies symptoms will survive, which isn't plausible at all-- the disease could not have a reputation of 100% mortality if anything close to 20% of its victims survived.

You presented these two explanations as alternatives, but they could be combined. Perhaps the Milwaukee protocol is only effective for those with special immune systems, but without it, even those people often wouldn't survive.

The other interesting question is whether the peruvian study exhibits survivorship bias. Perhaps much more of this population dies of rabies than survives it, and so the astonishingly high number of survivors is actually a smaller percentage of total victims. It's even possible that living in close proximity with rabid bats is causing natural selection in these people.

Aug. 17 2013 09:22 AM
forests from UK or New Zealand whatever

Religion and spirits had nothing to do with this nor any 'medium' as all mediumship is fake. It was sceince and as a former student who studied sceince I can explain it all if I had the time.

Darryl Forests
aka J@mes

Aug. 17 2013 01:53 AM

Really interesting episode.I find it ridiculous that in a church full of people, no one recommended that Jeanna see a doctor after being bitten by the bat.

Aug. 16 2013 08:40 PM


The prayers are part of the story because they were so important to the two main characters (Rodney and Ann both talked about prayer at length). It's pretty much that simple. I don't personally endorse prayer as a treatment for late-stage rabies; it's been attempted over thousands of years and does not seem to be a reliable strategy.

But to me, the prayers are a vivid demonstration of just how desperate the situation got and of how much uncertainty Rodney and Ann felt in that harrowing two-week period. It didn't seem right to let my own feelings about the efficacy of prayer censor their experiences.


Aug. 16 2013 05:05 PM

This story sounds so familiar. Are you sure it's not a rebroadcast or something?

Aug. 16 2013 09:18 AM
Richard Olson from USA

A portion of the content in the middle of this story is merged with an advertisement produced by Beliefnet. This is the second recent recent Radiolab production that is seeded liberally with woo. What does belief in unfalsifiable speculation have to do with anything, much less medical outcomes? Why select one person's personal prayer mantra, while leaving out the imprecations of all other participants in the episode? Better to include none, no? Particularly since "spirituality" plays no measurable role in any endeavor, much less comprehending the chemistry and biology of rabies. 'Spiritual technology' indeed.

Aug. 16 2013 08:54 AM

Can antibodies be transferred or are they only unique to the individual fighting the infection? Perhaps when people are bitten some of the vector's antibodies are somehow transmitted in certain cases?

Aug. 15 2013 04:03 PM

Finally - Radiolab gets back to science! I thoroughly enjoyed it, great work!

Aug. 15 2013 03:23 PM
Isaac from PA

This is a great piece! It has the story-telling, the mystery, the emotion, a touch of fear, and then the scientific debate that follows - in other words, the marks of a classic radiolab podcast.

I did find the repeated mentions of prayer to be a bit odd. Why include red herrings like that? It would have made more sense if they touched on it later, but they didn't. It seems like leaving the door open in listeners' minds that prayer might have something to do with it, but with none of the skeptical treatment afforded the other aspects - the treatment or native immunity.

Aug. 15 2013 03:05 AM
Justin Boie from Big Lake, MN

Great podcast! Jad the audio effects were impeccable! Great story arch and narrative as well! I love when you guys bring me to the summit, just to throw me down the other side. Also I'm really glad someone is finally doing something about rabies! I've been concerned about rabies, ever since The Office episode! ; P

Aug. 15 2013 12:48 AM


Take heart! Science, Jeanna's own immune system and prayer were all factors in this story, interwoven threads that need not be pulled apart. What is heartwarming about this story to me is the interplay of these factors, the simple fact of our courageous human grasping out into the darkness. What is heartwarming is how very little we know, and yet how very deeply we recognize that life is this tremendous gift. So we take the scientific and spiritual technologies we've developed over millennia to care for and maintain that gift a while longer. That's beautiful to me.

Aug. 14 2013 06:39 PM


Good points. Amy Gilbert suggested that replication locally at the wound might be what happened (and that the body saw the virus there and shut it down) but that there would be no way to rule out entry into the nervous system without doing spinal taps (to see if antibodies were in the cerebro-spinal fluid, and the brain). She also mentioned that the Peruvians had a specific kind of antibody called rabies virus neutralizing antibodies, which are typically only found at very late stages of the disease, if at all. At this point, the most definite thing we can say at this point is their immune systems are probably better suited to fight rabies than ours...whether that's because of some in-born resistance or low-level exposure over a long period of time, or both, that's a question they'd like to explore.


Aug. 14 2013 11:58 AM

I've just read one of the linked wired articles ['Bats Incredible'], which end with -

'Almost certainly those seven Peruvians were bit by rabid vampire bats, and developed an immune response against rabies as a result. But the study doesn’t investigate whether they experienced any of the neurologic symptoms of the disease, which progress from fevers and malaise to hallucinations, difficulty in swallowing, and worse. And absent a report of those symptoms, it’s impossible to say whether they ever developed the brain infection that doctors generally mean when they say a patient “has” rabies.'

I think that even without having been there this question could be fairly tackled if thinking how both the virus and a vaccine, and thus one's immune system, work.
While it is plausible that the people in question have had contact with the virus and developed immunity, it's highly unlikely that they ever developed any symptoms of any kind.
The contact must have been restricted to the immediate vicinity of the wound. The rabies virus aims at getting into the nervous system. Once it has achieved this no vaccine and no anti-bodies will find and reach it. It travels up to the brain from there, and during this journey the patient will not suffer any symptoms. Which is the reason why one could call the rabies virus, if some anthropomorphism is allowed, the 2nd smartest virus after the HI virus.
Meaning, if the above mentioned individuals had developed any symptoms it would have been at a late stage of the infection. Rabies symptoms mean late stage.
At the very least it would have been known to the men and women themselves - it'd be impossible not to notice or to mistake.
Hence the phrasing, to be polite, surprises me.

Aug. 14 2013 07:25 AM
tony from Adelaide, Australia

Oh - Richard - there was no praise of religion or prayer - that's what the family did to cope (no word 'miracle used akaik) - and it probably/maybe not science also (do I detect some confirmation bias there - whenever you here prayer you 'radar' goes up, and perhaps lose the context), more luck genetics!! BTW - I listen twice to see if you were right...

Aug. 14 2013 04:26 AM
Richard Barrett from Brisbane, Australia

What a heart-warming story. Also, I appreciate that a religious family would pray for a sick loved one in this situation. However, it was the ingenuity of medical science and Jeanna's immune system that saved her life, not prayer. I didn't hear any praise for the science that saved her life and this was the most disappointing and disrespectful.

Aug. 14 2013 01:59 AM

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