I was just petting an orange tabby cat in my Falls Church, Va., neighborhood, a cat I'd never met before. He was very cute. And he was purring and butting his head against my hand. Until he wasn't.
He sunk his teeth into my wrist, hissed at me and ran off. So began my personal episode of Law & Order: Feline Victims Unit, complete with cat mug shots and weekly check-ins from local animal control and public health officials. And rabies shots. Multiple rabies shots in the emergency room. And more than $26,000 in health care costs, an alarming amount considering I was perfectly healthy throughout the whole ordeal.
What I learned, besides fascinating facts about rabies, its transmission and the horrible ways one can die from it, was that any one of us is a mere cat scratch away from financial peril if we aren't lucky enough to have good health insurance. Our confusing health care system makes it too easy for a person who should get medical care to postpone it or avoid it -- even when that decision could be fatal.
After the encounter with the cat, I headed to a nearby storefront urgent care clinic, where a nurse handed me a form to fill out, which the city uses to track animal bites. She faxed the form to the health department and a police officer visited me as soon as I returned home.
I was asked: "Do you know the cat?" After some sleuthing in my neighborhood Facebook group, I developed a suspicion about who owned the cat. But I couldn't be 100% positive.
Which is why three days after the bite I was in the waiting room in the emergency room. When an animal bites someone, the procedure is to quarantine it for 10 days. If the animal doesn't develop rabies symptoms during that time, it's safe to say the bite victim won't develop the disease either.
But if the animal can't be identified or captured, the recommendation is to begin postexposure preventive treatment for rabies. I'd need a one-time injection of human rabies immune globulin and then four injections of the rabies vaccine over two weeks.
An estimated 40,000 to 50,000 people get such treatments each year following exposure to potentially rabid animals, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
I did consider taking my chances and skipping treatment. The odds the cat that bit me was rabid were, I'd guess, almost zero. He was probably someone's pet and didn't appear to have any symptoms. But rabies is fatal. That was the line my doctor, the animal control officer, my friends and public health officials kept repeating. A small chance is not the same as no chance.
I tried to be a responsible health care consumer and research cost-effective options. The ER is the only place that can administer immune globulin, so I knew that was my first stop. But I hoped to go elsewhere for the next three appointments, where I would receive the rabies vaccine.