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Until her final few weeks at Lakeland College, Jeanna Giese took classes in relative anonymity. It was a stark contrast to the attention she generated when she became the first person in the world to survive rabies without a vaccine.
"If people at Lakeland saw me walking across campus, I don't think they had any idea," Giese said. "Being just another normal person you pass in the halls is just fine with me. I don't want to be the one everyone stares at."
On Sept. 12, 2004, Giese was bitten by a bat. A few weeks after the incident, she developed severe neurological symptoms, and was diagnosed with rabies. She survived thanks to an experimental treatment that was developed by Dr. Rodney Willoughby at Children's Hospital of Wisconsin in Wauwatosa.
The story of her cure made international news, especially in the medical community, and Wisconsin media chronicled her ensuing life milestones, including graduation from high school and enrollment at Marian University.
She quietly transferred from Marian to Lakeland in the spring of 2010, and while she has some lingering issues with balance and coordination, they didn't prevent her from commuting from Fond du Lac. Her graduation from Lakeland received national media attention, and six regional television stations covered the event.
Giese has embraced her celebrity to raise awareness of rabies, which kills 50,000 people a year. A few days prior to graduation, Giese was in Boston speaking about her experience, and "I'm Alive," a reality television series on the Animal Planet network that features death-defying stories of people who have survived animal attacks, debuted an episode that featured Giese's story. This summer, she spoke at a global Alliance for Rabies Control international meeting in the Phillipines, and she's spoken at the Center for Disease Control's World Rabies Day event.
She graduated with a bachelor's degree in biology, and her dream job is to work in animal conservation or rehabilitation. Her Lakeland experience helped her improve her speaking and presentation skills, and her understanding of rabies and bats. She wrote a research paper on white nose syndrome in bats.
"I feel a real sense of accomplishment, not just for the four years of college but for the seven years since I had rabies," Giese said. "I feel blessed to know that a cure that started with me is working for other people."