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Rodney Versus Death

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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

Comments [11]

Angel Gutierrez from Buffalo, NY

On 1976 an article published in the Annals of Internal Medicine (ORIGINAL RESEARCH |1 JULY 1976

Recovery from Rabies in Man

CASIMIRO PORRAS, M.D.; JUAN JOSÉ BARBOZA, M.D.; EDUARDO FUENZALIDA, D.V.M.; HÉCTOR LÓPEZ ADAROS, M.D.; ANA MARÍA OVIEDO de DÍAZ; JORGE FURST, M.D.) described recovery from rabies. I will be happy to send a PDF copy of the article. Please, send me an email with the request.

Nov. 27 2017 10:42 AM
Lencho from Tucson

"The bat bit her and we washed the wound and thought nothing of it"

How do people in the 21st century not know that being bit by mammal means rabies is a possibility?

Nov. 26 2017 02:21 PM
Jessica Cejnar from United States

I was working as a reporter in Eureka, Calif. for the Times-Standard in 2011 and had the opportunity to write about Precious Reynolds, a young girl from Willow Creek who contracted and survived rabies. She isn't the center of Radio Lab's story, but she's mentioned. I was so excited when I heard this Radio Lab episode about the Milwaukee Protocol and especially when I heard Precious's name mentioned because I got to visit her and her family in her home after she came home from the hospital. Anyway, I thought this was a great piece.

Feb. 18 2015 01:43 PM
Jen from Haughton, LA

Love the piece! Well written and very good research. Let's just say I had a driveway moment and didn't want to get out of the car.

Feb. 18 2015 09:17 AM

I find myself being bothered every time the show focuses on prayer. I understand that people may pray, but I'd really, really prefer if it could be glazed over, perhaps?

This is a show that focuses on scientific things so much, but then it periodically just really annoys me with things like the "afterlife" symbology in the previous podcast and the prayers that were read out in this one. I don't care about the details of someone's prayer; they're free to pray while their kid is dying, I'm fine with all that, and I don't even mind if they mention that the person prayed. But please don't glorify it by sharing the specific prayer they used as if it matters at all. It's like reporting the color of crystal used to try to read her aura.

Oct. 15 2014 05:14 PM

They said the first person *without the vaccine in the story.

Jul. 14 2014 05:49 PM
Mary McKee from Beverly,ma

How can a family in the US in this day and age 'think nothing' of a bite from a bat that was behaving erratically. How could they be so ignorant? It boggles the mind.

Feb. 24 2014 04:57 PM
charlotte fanders from seattle,WA

Regarding the girl who survived rabies---.Therre was a young boy who a few years before was treated and survived. It was mentioned in the book RABID and his picture was in the hospital room of the girl who was treated and survived--thanks to her doc.
charlotte fanders

Feb. 24 2014 02:26 PM
Mary Mullaney from Kingston,NY

I have been listening to your program am wondering if studies have taken the direction to activate the NrF2 (gene expression of SOD, calatase and gluthione)? There is something revolutionary that is being introduced to the medical world that is a very effective NrF2 activator.
In the "Molecular Aspects of Medicine"Vol 32 Issue 4-6 speaks to the therapeutic potential of NrF2 activation.

You may reach me at if you'd like to hear more.

Feb. 24 2014 01:38 PM
Frank Yacenda from Tarpon Springs, Fla.

I am listening to your very interesting story about Gina, the Wisconsin girl who survived rabies, and I want to tell you that as amazing as her story is, she is not the first person to survive rabies as stated in the broadcast.

When I was a journalist in the 1980s I interviewed a woman on Merritt Island, Fla., who also had contracted rabies from a bat bite, developed the symptoms, and was told by the hospital to go home and die, that there was nothing they could do for her. She did her own research, contacted CDC, got the rabies vaccine ex-post-facto, and against every odd recovered and survived.

I do not remember the woman's name, but I have that interview and that afternoon engraved in my memory. My skin literally tingled (I guess you could say it crawled) sitting in her home office listening to her amazing and detailed account of her ordeal, the ominous feeling that pervaded the atmosphere when I came out after the interview into a brewing late-afternoon Florida thunderstorm, the fear of touching my hands to my eyes or mouth as I drove home with the ungrounded, but real, fear that somehow I had gotten the rabies virus on my hands during my meeting with the woman.

I tend to think there have been other rabies survivors, perhaps as indicated by the cited cases in the Amazon, but they are indeed extraordinarily rare outliers. I don't much believe in miracles, but I think one can say Gina's survival, as that of the woman on Merritt Island, can be described as miraculous if for no other reason than their extraordinary nature.

Feb. 23 2014 11:41 AM

There are stories in the Native American culture about wrapping rabies victims in buffalo hides. I wonder if this somehow slowed the virus until, as you have noted, the brain recovered and with the immune system was able to to fight back?

Feb. 22 2014 02:36 PM

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