Sep 06, 2022, 06:27AM

Needles, Vaccines, and Batwings

What do you do when you get bitten by a bat?

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We’d sprayed the eaves with oil-base primer and gone to lunch. Our family-run painting contracting business doesn’t get too many vacation-rental jobs, but we’d gotten this one, the exterior of a cabin in Welches, OR, a small burg on the Mount Hood Highway.

Back at the jobsite after a greasy-spoon lunch, setting ladders to begin applying the finish coat, I climbed a 16-footer planted on the cabin’s upper deck—brush and bucket in hand—to begin brushing the fascia board. My son followed with the sprayer. I felt a sharp sting on my left index finger, and a dark gray shadow emerged from behind the fascia board. “Bat,” I exclaimed. 

The bat was behaving strangely. It didn’t fly away after biting me, but landed on a drop cloth draped over a railing nearby. This wasn’t the kind of diminutive suburban bat often seen fluttering like a black hummingbird around our garage door light. This was a creature with what I estimate was an 11-to-12-inch wingspan.

I knew that if a person receives a wild animal bite, it’s good if you can catch the animal for testing. I was able to hit it with my paint bucket. It fell to the ground. My finger was ringing with pain. We should’ve had the presence of mind find a way to scoop the prostrate bat into the bucket, but I wasn’t sure I’d killed it. We descended from the deck to wash my hand; my son poured alcohol over the wound.

By the time we got back up to the deck the bat was nowhere to be found. That mistake, not securing the bat when we could’ve, meant that I’d have to undergo a full rabies vaccination series.

We Googled “bat bite” and the instructions were clear: try to catch the bat, cleanse the wound, seek medical attention. The nearest hospital was in Gresham, 40 minutes away. I was nauseous, so my son drove. We analyzed on the way. The primer applied to the eaves was a noxious brew with warnings about things like irritability on the label. The bat had reclaimed its lair while we were at lunch, and had been hanging behind the off-gassing fascia for some period of time. This shit would make a horse sick with that degree of inhalation. Given the chemical exposure, we reckoned it wouldn’t have to be rabid to behave strangely.

Once at the hospital, I cut my son loose to return to the jobsite and read some information they handed me while waiting in the emergency room. The first two sentences: Bats are one of the most commonly reported rabid animals in the United States. Bats are the leading cause of rabies deaths in people in the United States.

The attending nurse told me that they couldn’t insist I get the rabies series, but could only advise me to, which they did. First came the tetanus booster, then the rabies vaccine, which I’d heard about in childhood as stomach shots. It’s not like that anymore, just an arm shot. The worst was the need to inject some kind of rabies-blocking globulin serum around the site of the wound, three injections, at the finger, the base of the thumb, and the wrist.

The needle was thick, and the pain intense as the jab was followed by a twisting motion, and then the burning sensation of the globulin. My hand began to swell, and blood dripped from the needle holes. After the doctor left, the nurse told me that I’d have to get three more rabies shots over a two-week period. She further informed me that even if we’d caught the bat, I still would’ve had to undergo the initial treatment. Rabid animal testing is done by public health departments, and you don’t want to wait around with rabies for a governmental agency.

My son picked me up on the way back from Welches. My hand in my lap like a piece of rump roast, we talked about the time Ozzy Osbourne had to get the rabies series after biting the head off what he’d thought was a plastic Halloween bat. 

—Mark Ellis is the author of A Death on the Horizon, a novel about political intrigue and cultural upheaval.


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