Reminisce: More than a rifle for Christmas for first rabies survivor

LIMA — Matthew Winkler was the focus of national and international attention as Christmas Day approached in 1970. Stories about him appeared in newspapers in the U.S., Canada and England, and such media heavyweights as Newsweek, the Chicago Tribune, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal came calling. Walter Cronkite featured his story on the CBS evening news.

But all the six-year-old was interested in that Christmas was getting an air rifle, which officials in the children’s ward at Lima’s St. Rita’s Hospital said would be alright (minus the BBs, of course) for the boy who had made medical history. Winkler is believed to have been the first person to survive the rabies virus.

“Dr. C. John Stechschulte, Lima pediatrician in charge of the case said today Matt is continuing to recover and in the past two days has showed marked improvement in his speech,” The Lima News reported Dec. 23, 1970. “As a result of the rabies virus, Matt had great difficulty in speaking and his left arm was paralyzed. He now has use of the arm and is undergoing both speech and physical therapy.”

Matt’s unwanted odyssey into medical history began the night of Oct. 10, 1970, when a bat made its way from the attic of the Winkler family’s century-old red brick farmhouse near Willshire in Van Wert County into his bedroom.

His father, Nick Winkler, “tired after a day’s plowing under an Indian Summer sun, thumbed through some seed catalogs,” the Associated Press wrote Jan. 3, 1971. “His wife Verna half-way watched Richard Burton in the movie ‘Bramble Bush.’ The children, Matthew, 6, and Valerie, 4, were asleep, at last, upstairs.”

At around 10 p.m., Matt screamed and his mother “flew up the dark staircase, flicking on lights. Matt lay there on the big double bed, in horror. On his left thumb, fastened by frenzied teeth, was a tiny brown creature,” the AP wrote. “Nick, his legs weakened by childhood polio, bounded up the stairs. He thought she’d said ‘rat’ but now saw the tiny rodent, wings limp, its teeth in his son’s flesh. He tore it off and told his wife to find a jar. His mind held one thought that would have terrified any parent: rabies.” Matt’s mother cleansed the wound with soap, water and alcohol.

The following morning, Nick took the bat to a veterinarian, “hoping that Matt would not have to endure the two weeks of rabies shots that he himself had endured after being bitten by a cat years earlier,” the AP wrote. The veterinarian sent the bat by bus to Columbus for analysis by the Ohio Department of Health.

Four days after Matt was bit, the report came back: The bat was rabid. The Winkler family doctor immediately began daily shots of the newest vaccine. But four days was too long when the diagnosis was rabies. “Rabies brings on a death so horrible that its victims once were closeted away when the symptoms appeared, both to protect others from infection by bite, and to spare the victims tortured nervous system from outside irritation,” the AP wrote.

The Parkway Elementary School first-grader began showing symptoms around Halloween, running a fever, and complaining of a stiff neck. On Nov. 3, with his family doctor out of town, Matt was taken to see Dr. Stechschulte at St. Rita’s (now Mercy Health) in Lima, who admitted the boy for observation and prescribed antibiotics and other routine care.

At first, the boy seemed to improve, though he tended to drift off to sleep. On Nov. 14, Dr. Thomas T. Weis, who was managing Matt’s care while Stechschulte was out of town, found the boy’s speech was garbled. Weis spent an hour examining Matt, at the end of which he called the doctors at the Communicable Disease Center (CDC) in Atlanta. “They concurred in his diagnosis,” the AP wrote. “The boy could be flown to the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, by Air Force ambulance plane. There were experimental vaccines and serums available there which might be tried if nothing else worked.”

By the time Matt was diagnosed, experts were questioning if rabies need always be fatal since death usually came from complications, not from the disease itself. Could rabies be defeated by managing the complications, they wondered? “After two years of study, by late 1970, U.S. Public Health Service experts were looking for a case of rabies to give the new medical philosophy a try. Matthew Winkler became that case,” the AP wrote. “Not in a decade had doctors been able to get to a rabies case so early.”

Matt’s condition, however, had deteriorated and it was decided any attempt to move him would endanger his life. He would be treated at St. Rita’s with the assistance of the CDC’s top rabies expert, Dr. Michael Hattwick, who flew in from Atlanta.

Over the next month, the team of doctors — Stechschulte, Weis, Hattwick and several others — dealt with symptoms as they arose. Matt was moved to intensive care and a nurse stood at his side constantly. “His respiration was checked constantly,” the AP noted. “The main areas of concern: heart, lungs and brain.”

On Nov. 16, the day Stechschulte returned, Matt was beginning to show signs of a lack of oxygen and a small airway was established in his throat. “It was a turning point,” the AP wrote. “If there was a moment in Matthew Winkler’s life when a yes or no decision was all important, it was then, the tracheostomy.”

Although there were more problems, the medical team was able to deal with them early and by Dec. 12, doctors noted Matt was able to walk on his own and felt less weakness in his left arm. He continued with speech and physical therapy.

On Dec. 21, the news was announced at a press conference at St. Rita’s, prompting a front-page headline in that day’s edition of The Lima News: “Medical History in Lima! Doctors, Boy Beat Rabies.”

Stechschulte told The Lima News: “I don’t feel any one thing we did has made the complete difference. It was a team effort by all. I happened to be the physician in charge and Matt is one child who survived.”

After another month of therapy at St. Rita’s, Matt was released from the hospital on his seventh birthday, Jan. 27, 1971. “Being such a long-term hospital patient, Matt is aware of noise and there was plenty at his going-home,” Hope Strong wrote in The Lima News. “‘I’m used to it,’ he bragged. ‘I’ve had blood tests … they hurt sometimes.’”

A year later, on his eighth birthday, he returned to St. Rita’s to mark the anniversary. “There is no limit on his activities, and he had a great summer on the farm. Matt only has to see us periodically,” Dr. Stechschulte told The Lima News on Jan. 21, 1972.

In September 1975, five years after Matt made medical history, the AP visited the Winkler family on their Willshire farm and found Matt “a perfectly healthy farm boy who is learning to play the trumpet.”

“Matt shows no physical or psychological effects from his ordeal, although a scar on his neck is still visible from the tracheostomy. The rabies left him partially paralyzed on his left side five years ago, but four months of rehabilitation erased that,” the AP wrote. His mother told the AP that the only psychological effect was that the attention spoiled him. “He still gets pretty stubborn,” she said.