By Libby Ryan
September 15, 2019
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My dream trip to Thailand last fall was supposed to be a whirlwind of awe-inspiring temples, elephant hugs, and floating lanterns. And it was all of that — but with an expected detour into panic, tears, and hospital visits.

The cause? One tiny dog bite. All of my solo travel goals became a life-changing lesson in what I could manage on my own — five rabies shots in five cities on two continents — and how I want to travel.

Rabies has a 99.99 percent mortality rate, and once you show symptoms, there’s nothing doctors can do to save you. About 25,000 people die from it each year in Southeast Asia alone, according to the World Health Organization. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention only recommends the rabies vaccine for children, adventure trips, extended stays, or for those planning to work with animals, meaning many people head to Thailand without getting the shots. Most will be fine, but it only takes a nip to be put at risk for the deadly virus and then you’re stuck spending your holiday hospital hopping. Which is exactly what happened to me.

The Bite

I was in Ayutthaya, a small historic city north of Bangkok, exploring crumbling ancient temples. I didn’t try to pet the stray dog who bit me. He was hidden under a truck, I saw him too late, I got too close, and he chomped down on my ankle.

It was a tiny cut that barely broke skin but I knew within seconds that I had to go to the emergency room for a rabies vaccine.

I got a ride to the ER from the owner of my hostel and she wrote “dog bite” in Thai on a piece of paper to help me through the language barrier. I held it in clammy hands while a doctor examined my ankle, twisting my leg so a nearby Thai grandma could give her two cents on the bite. Mortified, I tried not to sob at them as they discussed my prognosis in Thai.

The doctor told me in limited English that I needed a tetanus vaccine and rabies vaccine, she stuck me in each arm, and left me feeling dizzy. My last thought before I passed out: I didn’t know the Thai word for “help.” Tongue-tied, no one noticed me slump over.

When I woke up, alone and terrified, I got a pamphlet in English and Thai explaining that I would need four more shots to complete the vaccination process. Already teary, I tried not to think about finding new doctors at every stop along my planned travel route.

Back in Bangkok the next day, I flipped through my photos of Ayutthaya and posted an Instagram gallery of bright blue skies and leaning stone towers with a caption about how the city had blown me away — without mentioning I’d spent the last 12 hours crying.

Stay or Go

The language barrier at the hospital left me with endless questions and emotions running high. My solution? Devouring every article on the internet about rabies. The panic hit when I discovered there was an emergency rabies shot that I didn’t get.

In the U.S., almost everybody gets an injection of rabies immunoglobulin (RIG) shot right into their bite. It builds immunity to the virus in the week before the vaccine takes effect. It’s an expensive drug, sometimes costing thousands of dollars in the U.S. Availability is often limited in developing countries, so only people with serious bites get RIG, not little nibbles like mine. My anxiety spiking, I was convinced this doomed me to the agonizing demise I’d learned all about online: a tingling sensation around the bite, paralysis, hallucinations, and then, death.

I did what any millennial in the midst of medical panic would do; I called my mom, and we consulted a stateside doctor about the options. I could fly home ASAP to get the RIG in the week-long window where it’s helpful, or stay in Thailand, trust that the Thai doctors were rabies experts, and get my next shots there.

No one who gets the rabies vaccine dies from rabies, the doctor told my mom. So I stayed.

Bucket List v. Anxiety Land

Honestly, the main reason I stayed was the promise of meeting an elephant. The bite happened early in my trip, the elephant sanctuary visit was planned for more than a week later, and I would need more vaccine doses during those days — but I was determined to hug that elephant.

I saw three more doctors in Thailand, weighing Google reviews and reading expat blogs to choose hospitals for my next shots. I walked myself to emergency rooms with a plastic bag of medical documents and held back tears as I waited for someone who spoke English to collect me for the jabs. I craved just a bit of face-to-face reassurance but the best bedside manner I got was “it’s probably fine.”

But I met my elephant. I learned to make authentic Thai curry, explored tropical waterfalls, and scootered to a mountaintop temple. I posted photo after photo of my grinning face, but whenever my Instagram app was open, there was also an open browser tab for researching rabies symptoms. I could reread the same WebMD page again, or I could focus on the filtered and flawless online version of my trip as the Likes poured in. I felt a liar’s guilt in my stomach with every envy-inspiring post, but it was more tolerable than the pangs of panic.

When I got back to the States, friends expected tales of paradise. I’d pulled off the classic Instagram vacation trap, but instead of polishing murky water into sparkling turquoise, I glossed over my personal nightmare. Every time I went to post a photo for the next few months, it felt wrong. I didn’t need the lies anymore, I just needed it to be over.

I found a travel medicine specialist at home, he sifted through my bilingual collection of rabies documents, looked at my bite, and finally gave me real reassurance. I needed more shots and a blood test for immunity, but it was likely a “tempest in a teapot.” I could breathe again.

Test results eventually confirmed I was immune to rabies. If I was ever bit again, I’d only need a couple booster shots. I took a selfie with the results, just for me.

That selfie joined other Thailand photos that eventually will be pared down into one of those cute coffee table photo books. And you know what? That book will probably skip over the really low points just like my Instagram. I’ll never forget the feeling of helplessness, but I’d rather remember the elephants.

The Takeaways

In retrospect, I can see now that the pretty photos weren’t entirely a lie. They were my proof that if I could navigate hospitals solo in a foreign country, I could weather most future snags that often throw off a vacation mood. Or, at worst, I could seize moments of joy once the tears dried. And I reached some other post-rabies epiphanies that I’ll happily share with my fellow travelers so they can skip the dog bite learning curve.

One, you can’t predict every possible emergency travel situation (although, anxious minds will try). That’s down to luck — and if yours is bad like mine — resilience. But don’t Google symptoms, it’ll only make you panic.

Two, I tried my best to counteract the total entitlement of needing Thai doctors to treat me in English with heartfelt empathy, but I still felt pathetic. If you can’t speak the local language, must-learn first words include “hello,” “thank you,” and “help.” And it doesn’t hurt to put a translated list of important medical information in a wallet to smooth over any potential language barriers.

And three, Instagram is an illusion; we all know this to be true. So as long as you remember that you’re always looking at a partial picture, there’s room for some indulgent photo shoots alongside trading tales of the sometimes-gritty reality.

I recently went to Morocco, my first big adventure since Thailand, and I posted unabashed stories of rip-offs and slip-ups, as well as photos giddily twirling on the blue streets of Chefchaouen. I even met some friendly cats, but only ventured near the ones that were obviously someone’s vaccinated pet — immunity status aside, I’m not taking any chances.

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