Photo by Lucas Foglia
Jeanna Giese’s long hair is pulled back in a loose ponytail. Her navy blue sweatshirt hangs loosely over blue jeans and a plaid button-down shirt. Sitting at a Starbucks in Fond du Lac, she looks like a typical 23-year-old, except for what’s hanging from her neck.
“Yeah, I’m wearing a bat necklace,” she says, fingering a winged figurine she bought while volunteering for the Organization for Bat Conservation last year. She wears it so often that she’s already had to replace the chain that holds the tiny replica. “It creates a lot of confusion, but I say, ‘I’m not afraid of them. I love them. I’m going to wear it.’”
In 2004, someone swatted a bat onto the floor of her Fond du Lac church, and Jeanna, ever the animal lover, picked up the body to carry it safely outside. This split-second decision, and the bat’s fierce little teeth, set in motion a course of events that would transform the volleyball-loving high school sophomore into the nationally noted “Rabies Girl.”
At one point, doctors said she had just four hours to live. But an experimental treatment at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, where doctors put Giese into a coma and flooded her system with a cocktail of immune-boosting drugs, saved her life. She became the first person in recorded history to survive an advanced rabies infection without the aid of a vaccine. If caught earlier, rabies is easily routed. But in Jeanna’s case, the survival rate was thought to be zero.
Fame followed. She appeared on “Good Morning America” in New York, where she sat for an interview with Diane Sawyer. “I was still at the point where my mind, my body, nothing was cooperating,” she says. She spent the next two years in intensive physical and occupational therapy, relearning how to speak, stand, eat, drink and perform other tasks normally taken for granted. Between treatments, she made appearances around the country. Then came visits to Wisconsin schools, World Rabies Day events and other functions.
Jeanna graduated from college in 2011 and is looking for a career that will allow her to both work with dogs and continue speaking at schools. She loves talking to students about rabies, she says. “If I had known about it, this wouldn’t have happened to me.”