Posted February 21, 2013 05:26 pm - Updated February 26, 2013 10:23 am

Moments of Love and Fear in the Atlas Mountains


Some moments in our lives stay with us, reappearing in our consciousness again and again.  This entry is about one of those moments in my life from several years ago.  While I don’t think about these events often, when I do, they are as vivid as when they happened.

The ER doc was blunt, “Well, the good news is that if you had rabies, you’d already be dead.”  Although I remained calm, my brain was screaming, “This is good news?"  The doc then informed me that he would go prepare discharge paperwork and I could be on my way.  Ten minutes later he returned and informed me, “Well, I’ve done a little more research and it turns out rabies can live in your body for up to ten years, but since the dog bite didn’t draw blood, you’ll be fine.  I’ll go prepare the paperwork.”  Trying to feel reassured but starting to think the doctor a little cavalier, I try to relax.   Another 10 minutes goes by.  This time the doctor returns with an assistant and decides to actually look at my injury under magnification.  What a concept.  After doing so, he informs me that I have a “significant crush injury” to my thumb, and the State Epidemiologist has degreed that I need to undergo a series of rabies shots.  I’m serious.  To be fair, the docs in Juneau don’t see a lot of potential rabies exposure.

As with many things in life, this scenario began with good intentions.  It was late October, high in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco.  The scenery and the roads were beyond description, the sun was shining and the conversation was engaging.  We passed numerous Berber nomads heading down the mountain as we were heading up and over, en route to their sheep wintering grounds at lower elevations.  A casualty of this annual migration was the sheepherder’s dogs.  Sadly, they were annually abandoned at the high elevations to try to fend for themselves during winter, a fruitless endeavor.   I was particularly sobered by this fact, and my heart ached each time we passed a group of now wild dogs gathering in assemblages wondering what to do next. 

We stopped for lunch at a small café with a really large gravel parking lot.  As we pulled in, I noticed a group of dogs cowering around some outlying sheds.  All through the immense lunch of hearty lamb stew and bread, the only thing I could think about was the hungry canines.  As was typical during these group lunches, there was always leftover bread.  When everyone had their share, I gathered up the leftovers and ventured outside.  My plan was to leave it somewhere outside for the dogs. 

Seeking some anonymity in my actions, I walked around a shed and saw a group of 12 dogs about 40 feet away.  I started to scatter the bread.  The dogs moved in, a few came quite close.  I dropped my bounty and walked away, hoping I staved off their hunger for at least a few hours.  The dogs didn’t seem aggressive, really, just hungry.

I was about to re-enter the restaurant when a travel companion emerged with more bread in hand.  He said, “Here, I got some more for you”, and smiled.   In a moment of prescience, all I could think was “crikes.”  Something inside me was resisting a second foray out to the dogs, but somehow I couldn’t say no to my friend. 

So, reluctantly, I accepted the bread and started back towards the shed.  As soon as the dogs saw me, this time they ran to me.  I had a momentary feeling of panic and just threw the bread towards them as quickly as I could.  I can still feel the tooth sliding down the bone of my thumb.  I quickly turned to see look, but it happened so fast, I don’t even which dog had had my hand in its mouth.  I saw a red line already developing on my thumb and my first thought was to wash my hand really, really well and so I did.  I didn’t say a thing to anyone, as I was a bit embarrassed and my companions were ready to go.

As we departed on our final 3-hour leg toMarrakesh, dark clouds formed on the horizon and the red line deepened on my thumb.  Brooding over both, I watched the storm blow in and kept assessing my thumb and “washing” it with hand sanitizer.  About an hour later, the clouds ripped open and a deluge pouring down the mountain.  Unlike my friends, I felt no fear about the storm, and the floods and the bad roads, all I could think about was my thumb.  I knew that rabies was endemic in Morocco and I also knew that rabies was deadly, if not timely treated.  I had no idea which dog had grabbed my hand, and there was no way of knowing if the dog carried rabies.

Upon arrival in Marrakesh, I decided to confide in one of my local companions.  He said rabies was “very bad” and called a local doctor for me.  The doctor said that since I would be home again in 3 days, I should keep my thumb clean and see my doctor “as soon as I got home”, which is how I found myself in the ER four days later. 

The good news is that they no longer give really painful rabies shots “in your stomach”—really, your abdomen, but everyone always said “stomach”.  Instead, you get a series of 4 shots in your arm, one a week for 4 weeks, augmented by two large, painful immunoglobulin shots in your thigh with the first rabies vaccine.  A small price to pay to stave off rabies, which would be an insidious way to die.  This was my penance, and I paid it.  I stoically endured the shots and amazed my incredulous friends with my travel tale.

Three years later, I am still left with an indelible image of the abandoned dogs in my heart, and the tiniest of lines on my thumb.  In moments of vulnerability, I worry as to whether I started the shots soon enough or whether there is still a chance rabies could emerge sometime over the next decade to ravage my body.  We all have “take back” moments in our lives---choices that we might have made differently had we known what the outcome would be.  On good days, I am glad I fed the dogs…on bad days, I wish that I had only fed them once.




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