Pam Stone | When considering a rabies shot, listen to the doctor or Facebook?

March 22, 2014 

In all my years of watching the stand-up comedy of Jerry Seinfeld, beginning in 1984, I believe the best joke he ever wrote was a relatively recent one, reflecting on being a father:

“A 2-year-old is kind of like having a blender, but you don’t have a top for it.”

This line ran through my head last week when, sitting innocently at my kitchen table, blatantly ignoring my unfinished taxes and browsing Facebook, one of our cats suddenly leapt onto the fireplace screen, claws hooked through the metal mesh, and, pulling the screen over on top of her, toppled from the brick hearth and onto the pine floor.

The object of this drone attack, an enormous squirrel, jumped out of the fireplace and, as an added insult to his feline predator, pounced on top of the screen, cat still attached beneath, then, in a frenzy to escape, began to careen around the open-floor plan of my house like a fur-covered pin ball, two Jack Russells and the remaining three cats in hot, and very vocal, pursuit.

One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, they went, over the sofa, round the kitchen island until Rocky was clever enough to scramble up the bannister and sit poised, tail twitching, atop the newel post on the stair landing, eyed greedily by our black and white cat, Tippy, who once, herself, had been a brazen immigrant here at The Funny Farm.

I darted across the room and opened both the front door and the side French doors and pulled on my heavy, leather, work gloves to try to herd the squirrel out of the house but as I approached him, speaking in low, soothing, tones, he careened back down the bannister, leapt onto the window pane, then the mantelpiece, sending picture frames crashing to the floor and, sensing the danger of sentimental keepsakes going the same way, I made the mistake of lunging for him, to grab his tail and fling him out the door.

I managed to latch onto it and, in a moment of self preservation, he latched likewise onto my hand and sunk his nut-cracking incisors through my gloves and into my index finger before scrambling out to freedom.

Rabies, rabies, rabies ... clanged through my brain.

“Great,” I thought, after cursing aloud. Going directly to the bathroom, I cracked open a brand new bottle of hydrogen peroxide and stuck my finger into the neck, then rinsed repeatedly beneath the faucet.

Rabies, rabies, rabies ... I tried to stay calm as I returned to my computer and googled “Rabies,” then “Rabies in S.C.,” then, “Death by Squirrel transmitted Rabies in humans.”

And, of course, like an idiot, posted a photo of my slightly punctured finger on Facebook.

“Get to the doctor! You need a rabies shot!!”

“Antibiotics, STAT! And rabies!!!”

“Tetanus booster and rabies, ASAP!!”

Going to the CDC’s website, I read that there has never been a documented case of squirrel-to-human rabies in America, and posted that information.

“That’s because everyone ever bitten by a squirrel probably got the rabies shots!!!”

Every bit of research I did (on responsible websites, not “Squirrels R Us”) told me that, while it is possible for squirrels, like all mammals, to become infected with rabies, the possibility is quite literally, one-in-a-million, because the squirrel probably wouldn’t survive the attack by another rabid animal in the first place and, if it did survive, would be dead in a matter of days and I must say that the squirrel that bit me looked glossy, healthy and as though it had just chowed down at an all-you-can-eat buffet at The Golden Corral.

And while it’s not wise to equate the financial cost of treatment with the cost of a fatal disease, the price of the rabies shots is ludicrously expensive. I could buy a used truck or have my existing truck tuned up at the dealer’s with what it would cost: up to several thousand dollars.

“I can’t believe you’re not going to get the shots! You could be dead in a week!!” screamed Facebook.

And then, of course, I had to read more about rabies and scare myself, so as I just happened to be going to sit with my mother, nearly recovered from a bout of pneumonia in hospital, I thought I would pop down to ER and ask the doctor on duty, who happened to be the same approachable gentleman who looked after my mother during admission.

(You can do this sort of thing at a small, county hospital. You don’t have to worry about being thrown out because there’s five gunshot victims ahead of you and a guy with an axe in his head. You can walk in and just say, “Hey.”)

“Hey,” I said, holding up my finger to both the doctor and the nurse (also who had seen my mother and had been most helpful in relaying everything regarding her tests and subsequent care to me) “Squirrel bite. Does it look OK to you or do I need a rabies shot?”

“It looks pretty good,” he said, preening at it. “Have you had a tetanus shot?”

Yep, last summer.

“The risk of rabies from a squirrel is so very rare that you’re probably alright.”

Probably.

“Would you get the shot?” I asked.

“I wouldn’t,” replied the nurse, like a pistol crack. “And I give rabies shots here, all the time, from dog bites and other wild animals prone to carrying it. But from a squirrel? I wouldn’t bother.”

“It’s up to you,” said the doctor. “but again, the risk is very, very, small.”

“They said the risk was basically one in a million,” I posted to Facebook, “So, I think I’m OK.”

The wave of rebuke crashed ashore.

“That doctor is wrong! Doctors don’t know what they’re talking about!! You, at the very least, need IV antibiotics. Just because it doesn’t look infected now, doesn’t mean it won’t go septic, get into your bloodstream and kill you!!!”

“Do you still have the squirrel? You need to take it in so they can cut off its head and check for rabies!!!”

“No, I don’t have the squirrel, but I reported the bite and gave a description of the squirrel,” I typed my response, tartly, “Gray with a fluffy tail, so Animal Control should have no problem finding him and bringing him in.”

That night, I dreamt that I was driving and two, manic, squirrels ran in front of my car, locked in a gruesome fight and rolling all over the road. One got up, and back broken, was crawling to the grassy shoulder.

(Note to self: no more Cadbury Creme Easter Eggs before bed)

Next morning, I called the county “wild-animal bite” extension. I was told it was highly unlikely I would ever develop rabies from a squirrel and, amazingly, it had been somehow determined that, as the disease spreads exceedingly slowly, the taller you are and the further away from your brain the bite is, the longer it takes the disease to spread.

I could just kiss my ectomorph ancestors. I should be fine until sometime in 2037.

I was also promised a return call by the wild-animal-bite-specialist-doctor.

I’ve yet to hear back...

So, in the meantime, I’ve decided to see if I can hunt down that squirrel just to observe. Shouldn’t be hard to spot. He’ll be the one with soot on his paws and a smug grin on his face.

Reach PAM STONE at pammstone@gmail.com.

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