Rabies Made Me The Socialist I Am Today

by Matt Powers

Like many young, college-educated people, I have been an ardent supporter of universal healthcare and widespread socialism without really knowing what either of those things are. In fact, I could have gone my entire twenties unquestionably supporting my pinko-liberalism without a first-hand experience with what socialism might look like. But, as fortune would have it, I was given the opportunity to test-drive government run, tax-funded, universal healthcare two years ago. It came in the crucible of a rabies scare.

Like many young, college-educated people, I studied abroad when I was an undergraduate. But I missed my own university’s deadline, and I had to scramble to patchwork a new plan through another college. My choices, of which there would have been hundreds if I just made that deadline, distilled down to four — and it quickly became clear that only one would work at all. Paris, France required French fluency, which my five years of French studies had impressively managed not to bring to fruition. Ulm, Germany required German fluency, which despite never having even one lesson, was on par with my French talents. And Uppsala, Sweden required a steely resolve to be visited by the icy specter of death at any moment in a sparsely populated Arctic hellscape. So Copenhagen, Denmark it was.

After some hasty research, I became incredibly excited at my de facto choice. Denmark boasted liberal ideology, beautiful people, and one of my favorite talking points: universal healthcare! Little did I know how useful this last attribute would factor into my stay.

Shortly after my arrival in Denmark, I received an email recommending that I pick up my Civil Personal Registration (CPR) card, which is essentially a social security card for Danish citizens. This would allow me to access government services, open a bank account, and apply for a library pass. While my card did say “visitor” on it, I was afforded many of the rights that born and raised Danes receive. I was even assigned a doctor. I took solace knowing that if I plunged into the beautiful Pelbinge Sø after a Tuborg-soaked stumble home from the bar, the Danish government and its beautifully cheek-boned taxpayers would cover me. Fortunately, I never incurred injury in Denmark.

Malady, however, was waiting in the wings upon stepping off the plane in Sofia, Bulgaria — the land of the rabid dog.

Let me get off on the right foot with this publication’s extensive and proud Bulgarian audience: Bulgaria is a beautiful country, and the people I met there were incredibly warm. The cuisine is delicious. I definitely enjoyed my time in Bulgaria — save for about 20 seconds of it. My sister had come to visit me in Copenhagen, and we travelled east together to visit her Bulgarian then-boyfriend, Nikola, who was visiting his mother in Sofia, the capital. Having a local guide improved our experience tenfold, and having an old Bulgarian woman with a lifetime of recipes cooking dinner for us was quite an asset, especially the amazing homemade sarmice (to this publication’s extensive Bulgarian audience, you know what I’m talking about).

On the final evening of our stay, my sister and Nikola decided to go to dinner together, so I planned to spend my evening seeing a movie. We looked up the theater and it turned out it was right next to the apartment where we were staying. In fact, it should have only been a five-minute walk. But the misty Bulgarian night had other plans.

A little bit of explanation here: Sofia is teeming with stray dogs. They are everywhere. You see them walking around in subways and on sidewalks or just laying down wherever. They are integrated into the culture and benignly get along with their human counterparts — typically. But as in any dog-infested city, things don’t always go perfectly.

I set out for the theater with misplaced confidence that I knew where I was headed. After walking the wrong way for twenty minutes and asking for directions twice, I decided to head back into the dense mist whence I came. Two extroverted stray dogs had the same idea. It started out innocuously enough — they barked at me. I hadn’t yet observed that during my trip, but a barking dog is not exactly cause for concern. But then the pair started following me, and fast. The braver of the two hounds trailed me by only about a few paces, and I began to worry. I hastened my stride and yelled a few desperate go away!’s but nothing was deterring this bloodthirsty beast. Without warning, the dog lunged and grabbed my pant leg. In a moment of sheer bravery, I ran away. This sufficiently tore the dog free by fraying my pants, but I knew this defeat would simply redouble his efforts. As I ran down the dark alley, I thought of my sister having to identify my body, still with her doggy bag full of telesko vareno, how it would put a damper on her evening. But as quickly as they came, the dogs retreated back into the night. I was alone again, save a few errant barks coming from somewhere in the shrouded street. I was free. I would live.

Or so I thought — a further investigation of the wound revealed two bright red circles on the back of my ankle: blood had been drawn. It didn’t hurt, but I knew the bilious saliva of the mad dog would beset soon enough. Was it rabid? It hadn’t been foaming at the mouth, and it gave up on the hunt a little too easily for a disease-addled killer. But why would it attack at all? I decided the best course of action was to just find the theater. I didn’t want to ruin my sister’s dinner, and I definitely didn’t want to explain my dog attack to an old Bulgarian woman with no English language fluency. Upon entering the movie theater (which, as it turned out, could be seen from the apartment), I immediately headed for the bathroom and, carefully positioning my ankle underneath the foam soap dispenser, I deluged the fetid wound with heaps of aerated disinfectant. While I was pleased with this improvised first aid, I wondered if it would be enough. It was perhaps only in my head, but the bite began to feel weird. Hot, and itchy. I tried not to pay it any mind. I was worried, but things were about to get much, much worse: The only movie playing in the next half an hour was Tron Legacy 3D.

I felt faint.

The only thing less comforting than spending two hours in a dark room by yourself worrying that you have rabies is spending that same duration watching Tron Legacy 3D. Plus, I couldn’t be certain that the mangy dog wouldn’t come to finish the job. I began to panic, thinking about how my fate would be inextricably linked to Tron Legacy 3D if I succumbed to rabid fever in that theater. The movie was spent in the unlikely combination of fear and utter boredom. Against all odds, my foot remained firmly attached to my leg for the entirety of the film.

Later that evening, I soberly recounting my dog tussle tale to my sister, who, like every good older sister, worried about it. She immediately got Nikola’s mom (via Nikola) on the case, asking questions and getting answers. We of course had a flight back to Denmark the following day. Would I make it that far? As luck would have it, Nikola’s mother worked as a dental hygienist in a hospital. She was friendly with many of the doctors, and assured us (via Nikola) that we would be able to see one tomorrow. And that is exactly what we did.

After talking in Bulgarian for what seemed like forever (for some reason, “can you please hurry up with the pleasantries? I am slowly dying from a rabid dog bite” was not present in my Bulgarian phrasebook), the doctor examined my ankle. His immediate response was equal parts surprising and troubling: He laughed. Out loud. And then rattled off some Bulgarian. “A scratch,” Nikola translated for us. “It’s just a little scratch.” Now everyone was laughing. The doc splashed on some alcohol, gave me a bandage and shook my hand. I was cured! I thanked him profusely, a condemned man just a moment earlier I suddenly had the zeal of new life.

But of course I did not have health care arrangements in Bulgaria — only Denmark. Nikola and his mother conferenced outside the room and decided that we must buy him something from the hospital gift shop. This next part sounds too stereotypical and downright offensive to be true, but I can confirm it happened, even if a man who was bitten by an aggressive dog is not the most reliable narrator: We bought the doctor a bottle of vodka. The hospital gift shop was flush with alcohol choices and Nikola’s mom pointed out a brand that the doctor preferred. He was very pleased with the token of gratitude (and before this publication’s extensive Bulgarian readership accuses me of slander or malign, I want you to know that during my four days in Bulgaria, I went to Plovdiv. That’s right, Plovdiv. No Americans go to Plovdiv. So you know I know I’m telling it to you straight). Nikola’s mom explained to us that gift-giving was a big custom in Bulgaria, and that when things went well for you, you were supposed to throw a party and buy everyone else drinks and gifts, which kind of makes a lot more sense than the inverse way we do it in this country. The doctor had given me good news, and I had bought him a mini-party. It was a beautiful, boozy sentiment.

Diagnosis in hand, I was feeling pretty good about my little scratch. But upon our return to Copenhagen, my sister rightly urged me to get it checked out again by my Danish doctor. Plus, my doctor was free and I was kind of itching to give Danish care a try so I could proudly brag to all my college friends upon returning that I had tried universal healthcare and be anointed socialist King of Pennsylvania. This title seemed too good to pass up.

My assigned doctor had an office right near my apartment, so my sister and I popped in to make an appointment. I was able to be seen later that day. Dr. Jørgen Jensen, as it turned out, spoke perfect English as a result of spending some high school and college years in Texas. He examined the wound and, like his Bulgarian colleague, he was not impressed by the breadth or size of the bite. He redressed it and then consulted some literature on his desk about dog bites. He told me it was unnecessary to get rabies shots as the disease had been eradicated in Western Europe, a place Bulgaria was considered part of. He hesitated when he said that, as if he was going purely off nomenclature and not intuition when including Bulgaria in the West (this publication’s extensive and esteemed Bulgarian audience, sorry but come on you know it’s sorta true. Get the stray dog situation under control and we’ll chat).

But he reaffirmed his answer. As luck would have it, the appointment after mine had been cancelled, so Dr. Jensen had some free time. He clearly didn’t see Americans much, and he relished his time talking to us and recounting a few choice memories of his Texan youth. After about ten minutes of chatting, he abruptly stopped the conversation and said he had decided to call over to the hospital to double-check about his rabies/Bulgaria assertion. As in Bulgaria, my sister and I were left out of this Danish diagnosis. At that point, I had been in Denmark for five months and could pick out “afternoon” and “dog,” but that did little to give me any indication of what he would say when he hung up the phone. What he said was this: There had been three reports of rabies in stray dogs in Sofia over the past year. This meant I had to go further down the universal healthcare rabbit hole. My life had been spared by a sick Dane canceling her appointment in a random twist of fate. I would live.

Hvidore Hospital is not in Copenhagen proper. In fact, it’s over an hour bus ride away. In early January, Denmark has about ten minutes of daylight and snow whipping in your face incessantly, so getting to the hospital was a trial. The facade of universal healthcare was beginning to crack. Why couldn’t I have gone to a closer hospital? This is the only one with rabies treatment, I was told. I was instructed to ask for a certain doctor to attend to me upon reaching the emergency room front desk. This desk is where I was informed that I was an hour late, and he had already left for the evening. The wait would be ten hours to see the next available doctor. Universal healthcare was quickly becoming not the utopia I had imagined.

But then luck visited me once again. The doctor’s assistant was still there, and he would see me in half an hour. Sleeping in a chair turned into just sitting in one! My night was improving, which was good because my sister was leaving the very next day and I felt bad that I had dragged her on this Sisyphean ordeal. The assistant explained to me that I would have to receive six shots in all. Four in the first week and two in the second. My desire to briefly dip into universal healthcare for the socialist badge it would emblazon on my chest forever was being lengthened into a trial. However, I quickly did the arithmetic and decided being alive was worth the six, hour-long trips to this distant hospital. I was earning my socialist stripes the hard way. To pile on, the assistant then told me that he couldn’t find the rabies antidote and couldn’t recall the last time anyone in Denmark was administered one. He assured me that he would have some delivered in two days, and instructed me to not die until then. Weary, but thankful, my sister and I got back on the bus and went back to my apartment.

Over the next two weeks I returned to Hvidore to get my shots. The second one had to be in a buttcheek which led to a really bizarre experience where I was instructed to drop my pants while facing a large window that looked into a different part of the hospital. I don’t know if I should chalk that up to carelessness or a general lax Europeaness, but I definitely showed my gentials to scores of sick Danish people. The other shots were thankfully in my arm.

I left Europe alive with a story to tell of two healthcare systems — one paid in booze and the other in hour-long bus-rides to the desolate Danish countryside. Neither cost me anything (my sister had covered the vodka), and I was always treated well and with good-humor.

When I returned to America, I finally had a little substance for my socialist screeds, a bit of ethos for my undying devotion to the throne of liberalism.

Previously: “The Cost of Not Dying from Rabies

Matt Powers lives in Brooklyn.