February 2024
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Saigon Kids Stories: Rabies Shots

by Kevin Wells (ACS)

Alex Huehne lived just down Ngo Dinh Koi from me, less and 500 yards closer to needledowntown, and we were buddies. His father worked for WHO and my father worked for USOM.

Alex had a dog and unfortunately, the dog died in suspicious circumstances with symptoms that, in part, suggested rabies was the cause.

If you pay attention to the news almost anywhere in the United States, you will know that rabies is a disease that humans can get from animals. You will also know that it is considered fatal if not treated and if you believe the uninformed, the shots are horrendous. The last time I checked, there was only one known, untreated human rabies survivor. Rabies is serious business. Treatments in the 21st century are nothing compared to the 1960s.

To get a definitive rabies diagnosis required three things; a tissue sample from the dog, a microscope and a pathologist or a veterinary pathologist who was skilled in preparing and examining the tissue sample using the microscope. One or more of those three things was missing in Saigon, so Alex and I were started on treatments simply because each of us had recent cuts on our hands just before the dog started showing symptoms. With rabies, one takes no chances.

I knew the story about Pasteur’s development of the rabies vaccine and the treatment before and after his advance. I was certainly glad they did not have to strap me down and apply the cauterizing iron to my tender flesh. The cauterizing treatment did not work all that well anyway. I certainly had not heard good things about the shots. Frankly, none of this sounded like I would enjoy the results until after it was over.

Alex and I had our orders. First we went to the US Naval Dispensary for my treatment. The Nurse came out with a syringe set and a small bottle on a tray and I bravely took the shot in the arm. I was expecting to writhe in agony but it was just a matter of a normal a perfunctory swipe with an alcohol soaked cotton ball, the injection of 15 cc, and that was it. In my view, things were looking up considerably. All I had to live through is the ones in the abdomen and the rump and I was home free. Alex was considerably encouraged, maybe even optimistic about his treatment at Institute Pasteur.

Upon our arrival at Institute Pasteur, Alex and I were ushered into a room with one of the nuns. Sister was expecting us. Alex gave her his documentation and she went to work. Out of the refrigerator she retrieved a large bottle with a cork in it sealed with wax. She lit the Bunsen burner and started on the needle, I am sure that my memory exaggerates, but in my mind, it looked more suitable to a horse than a human being. It was a major caliber, big, honking needle. Long too!

She selected one, a very long one and looked at the point using a magnifying glass. The point did not meet her standards so she produced a whetstone and touched it up a little. All this was done while the victim, Alex, was observing the whole process.

The used a needle to draw the fluid from the wax-stoppered bottle. The syringe itself looked as if it could hold a liter, but was probably only about 150 cc. The drop hanging on the syringe looked like it had the consistency of Elmer’s Glue. Next was the part that Alex had come to dread.

One would think that the Sister would put the needle on the syringe and go to work. That is not how it was done. The Sister darts the sharpened and sterilized needle into the abdominal wall, then screws on the syringe and with her bony little hand wrapped around the syringe, her palm on the plunger, and a vein on her forehead throbbing with the effort, s l o o o w l y pushes the plunger all the way to the end.

I was moderately inconvenienced; Alex was put through an ordeal. I had 17 trips ahead; Alex had 20. This went on for days and days and days. Fortunately we never got to the end. The veterinary pathologist returned, and pronounced the dog free of rabies.

We were at trip 7 when the news arrived and Alex was very relieved that he would not face the Sister again. For that matter, watching it was no picnic either!

The fun just never ends in RVN!

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