LIMA — The first successful treatment of rabies occurred in 1970 at what was then known as St. Rita’s Hospital.
Matt Winkler, 6, of the Willshire area, was sound asleep Oct. 10 when bitten by a bat. His parents had been redecorating the upstairs of their 1888 farmhouse and a small hole was left uncovered in the ceiling that separated Matt’s room from the attic. Hearing his son scream, Nick Winkler rushed into the room to find a furry thing dug into and dangling from Matt’s thumb.
“I felt it digging deeper into my arm. I just got cold,” Matt recalled in a newspaper article. When Nick pulled it off, “It felt like a dentist pulling a tooth,” Matt said.
Nick put the bat in a jar. Matt’s 25-year-old mother, Verna, bathed the two puncture wounds with soap, water and alcohol, and within 10 minutes everyone went back to sleep.
The next morning Nick took the bat to a veterinarian, who sent it away for tests. Four days later the tests confirmed the bat was rabid.
Dr. John Chrispin, of Rockford, administered serum shots on both sides of Matt’s stomach for two weeks, but by the end of the month, Matt was drifting off before bedtime. Halloween came and he didn’t feel like trick-or-treating. Then on Nov. 3, Matt was rushed to St. Rita’s Hospital after his temperature boiled to 104.6 degrees.
At first doctors thought it was the flu or an allergic reaction to the serum. That all changed Nov. 14 when Matt’s speech became garbled, his left-side stiffened, he lost coordination and dropped into a semi-coma.
For Nick, 28, and Verna it was stunning. Just weeks earlier, they were so proud that their only child already knew half the alphabet. Now rabies had set in and Matt was facing a virus that attacked the central nervous system, convulsing and choking its victims to death.
Two-thousand years of medical history said no one survived.
Yet, three doctors thought otherwise: Dr. C. John Stechschulte, a Lima pediatrician who believed hope, medicine and prayer were mighty forces; Dr. Thomas Weis of Lima; and Dr. Michael Hattwick, of the Atlanta Centre for Communicable Disease Control.
The doctors’ plan was to treat every symptom the minute it began to appear and before the symptoms overwhelmed the boy all at once. When Matt’s heart and breathing began to rapidly increase, the doctors quickly did a tracheotomy. When his left hand began opening and closing, they administered anti-convulsant medications. No antibiotics or steroids were used.
“We figured the best defense was offense,” Stechschulte told The Lima News at the time.
Gradually, Matt improved.
On Monday, Dec. 2, the Page 1 headline of The Lima News read: “Medical History in Lima! Doctors, Boy Beat Rabies.”
The blond-haired boy was the first human ever to survive the dreaded “mad dog disease,” medical experts at the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta confirmed.
Nick and Verna Winkler called it their Christmas miracle. Matt said he just wanted Santa to bring him a BB gun.
He was finally released from the hospital on Jan. 27, 1971. Matt joked he would miss all the pretty nurses. It was his seventh birthday.