October 22, 2014 – Bees and Dogs Smell Fear
(Part 2: To Bee)
Several things happen after I get stung by bees.
Opening up channels for the traditional medical route, I get my name added to a Tennessee health care project which provides sliding scale costs for people with low incomes.
Pursuing other options, I call a local acupuncturist to see if he does bee venom acupuncture. He doesn't, but he's intrigued and says he will research it.
I schedule an appointment for acupuncture.
I get a book called The Bible of Bee Venom Therapy: Bee Venom, Its Nature, And Its Effects on the Arthritic and Rheumatoid Conditions.
I have one session of acupuncture. It doesn't seem to make a difference, but I know these things take time, I know these methods require more than one session, I know that creating a pain management program can be a lifelong commitment. The acupuncturist tells me, “Your disease is unpleasant but not life threatening. You can have a lot of hope.”
This is true. This a good reminder.
I'm still looking for that instant fix.
When I get home, on impulse, I call the president of the Nashville Beekeepers Association. I’d gotten his number after trying to find doctors and bee venom and apitherapists in my calling frenzy of the week before. I introduce myself, explain how I got his number, and then launch into my main question, “Is it possible to buy ten or twelve bees from you?” I hold my breath for the answer. I try not to blurt out that I intend to sting myself thereby killing those ten or twelve innocent bees. I try to hold in the words that express the horror I feel on account of my own hypocrisy. I love bees. I hate killing. How can I justify the death of a bee for my own benefit? Morality, ethics, and my own belief that life is the most precious thing and should always be honored battle against my desire to be well even at the expense of others.
“What are you trying to do,” he asks, “some kind of bee sting therapy?”
“Actually,” I say, relieved and surprised, “yes.”
“Well,” he says, “you come on out here and we’ll sting you and get you all fixed up.”
He assures me that it's no problem and there will be no cost unless I want to buy a jar of honey. I've looked at his website I know how much the honey costs. I’ll buy two. We arrange a tentative meet up and I hang up.
I call my mom with the exciting news.
I text my dad to ask for a prayer for the bees.
I've got a this is too good to be true feeling. This is what I want. This is what I've wanted to try for a while. As sometimes happens, I fear that what I want most won't come to pass, that some twist of fate will thwart me. I'm afraid that the nine miles between Joel’s house and mine will prove to be too far. After all, I don’t have my own vehicle. I have no idea how the Nashville public transportation works (even after looking at their website). And eighteen miles is quite a ways to walk even for me.
My doubt, perhaps, acts as a self-fulfilling prophecy when on the scheduled day I call to confirm the time with Joel and he tells me he's at the doctor’s with his wife who has just broken her arm. “We should be home around five or five-thirty,” he says. “I'll call you when I know.”
Not wanting to impose, trying to rearrange my ride, and wanting to avoid rush-hour traffic becomes too much to handle. Why can't things just be easy? I grouse. I have my five minutes of self-pity (which includes a phone call to my mom) and then I pull myself together.
After all that, I text Joel not to worry about today and that I hope his wife will be all right. I type out that maybe we can try again over the weekend when things have calmed down. Fatalist that I seem to be I just assume I've lost my one chance.
Of course, this is not the case.
On Friday, I go for a second round of acupuncture. The doctor increases the electrodes’ power, increases the number of needles used. After the session, I experience four hours of painlessness. I can't remember the last time that has happened. Back at the house, I sit on the couch and revel in the strangeness of, what I can only term as, silent hands. There is no background buzzing of inflammation, no throbbing pain, no lingering ache, not even the usual tightness of the joints. I sit on the couch and looked at my hands and wonder how long this will last. Although the doctor has given me a twenty percent discount I can't afford any more sessions, not if I want to keep within the budget I've set to get me through the end of the year. When the pain creeps back in I send up a silent thank you for those painless hours. I'll take whatever I can get. It's a gift.
The next day (with luck on my side after all) I make it out to Joel’s. He's watering plants when I drive up in Sarah's car.
“Amanda?” he asks.
“Joel,” I say.
We shake hands.
“You're not allergic to bees, are you?” Joel asks.
“I'm not,” I reply. And without much further ado he begins to pick bees off the rim of the five gallon containers in the back of his truck where the bees are feeding on sugar and to use them to sting me in the places I indicate. I get four stings on each hand.
The stings themselves hurt, a lancinating pain first followed by the jolt of venom hitting my system. I don't even flinch.
“That's the venom sac,” Joel says, pointing to the pulsing white bulb at the end of the stinger jutting up out of my skin. “If you mash that down you’ll get all the venom that's there.”
I mash the venom sacs with the tip of my fingers. I want the full effect. I've read the entire Bible of Bee Venom Therapy. It says that rheumatics need to be saturated with bee venom. I’m going for it all.
Joel shows me where the hives are just in case his truck isn't there with the feed buckets. He tells me I can come anytime and help myself. He says if he's there he'll help me out.
I began to believe that beekeepers might be the kindest people in the world.
As I walk back to the car, I whisper a thank you to the eight bees I've killed. A thank you doesn't cover it, but it's all I've got for now. I whisper I’m sorry, too.
I’ve been invited to dinner at my friend Erin’s house and I’m slightly embarrassed to show up with my hands all marked up and red. Though to be honest, except for the puncture marks and some radiating redness my hands look fairly normal. I tell Erin about the experience. Dinner is delicious. Back at the house, I notice my hands have started to react. Sarah is away for the weekend and I'm glad. My hands swell up to two, maybe three times their size and my relief is that she isn’t there to worry about them, about me.
I know what I’m doing. I think.
I wake up in the middle of the night. My hands itch like mad. They’re swollen and they itch like mad. I don’t scratch them. The next morning, rereading the Bible of BVT I discover what pruritus means.
I talk with my grandmother on the phone after I get an additional six stings on Sunday afternoon. “I’m going to email you a picture,” I tell her. “But you can’t freak out. The reaction is good. It looks crazy but it would be worse if I wasn’t reacting.” That’s what the Bible of Bee Venom Therapy has assured me. “The more severe the reaction the quicker the recovery,” it says.
“I have the weirdest conversations with you,” my grandmother says.
I text the picture to my parents with the words: Don’t freak out, you guys.
Naturally, they call me on speaker phone saying, “We’re freaking out, man, we’re freaking out here!”
One of the side effects of bee venom is an increased sense of well-being. I’m feeling this even as my hands and arms look like I’ve got a fat suit on. I keep a detailed log of each sting, each reaction, each day. For this I’m patient, scientist, and doctor.
On Monday, Joel isn’t home. It’s go time. Time to prove I am up to this. I catch the bees on my own. I’m tentative, but not scared (after all, bees and dogs smell fear) as I try to pick them up between my thumb and first finger. The ones that flap their wings against my too hesitant touch make me withdraw my hand, make me have to try again. This day’s stings go to my knees and ankles. Although I’m hoping to increase up to ten or so stings this time, I only get seven. One is on my thumb. Another on my pointer finger. After that one I lose my nerve and go home.
The finger sting hurts worse than any I’ve gotten so far.
I’m up to a total of 25 stings.
I’m sorry, bees. Thank you.
Days go by and when the venom inflammation dies down my hands look normal. It’s been a long time since that has happened. But this is a time of flux. I go each day to get stings. The venom plays its part. The swelling comes, the swelling goes down. No one is to freak out, this is what’s supposed to happen.
This therapy is one that fights inflammation with inflammation. Here’s how it works. Imagine my wrist joint is a house. One day someone (a neighborhood watcher perhaps) goes zipping by the house and thinks they see smoke and a raging fire. They call the fire department. The fire fighters arrive and begin to douse the house with water. The problem is that there never was a fire. But the fire fighters continue to spray the house down. Because of this the house gets water damage. Maybe one of the fire fighters hacks down a door or knocks out a window thinking to rescue someone inside. Damage is being done to the house’s structure. Oblivious, the fire fighters continue to fight a fire that does not exist. The good guys are doing some bad harm to that house. Now comes the bee venom. The bee venom is a friendly arsonist. This arsonist sets fires in all the trash cans that line the street. Suddenly, the fire fighters have a real fire to combat and can leave the house (aka the wrist joint) alone. But that’s not even the end. Because of the real fire other helpers become aware of the damaged house and can start to rebuild it. Finally able to see what’s been happening they can work to dry out the water damage and replace the ceiling and floors. They can start to repair all the damage that’s been done.
That’s the illustrative theory behind bee venom therapy and autoimmunity.
The goal for me is to build up an immunity to the bee venom. Somehow (magically?) this immunity goes hand in hand with healing the arthritic condition. Whether this is remission or a full blown cure will remain to be seen. Whatever happens, taking an active part in finding a solution has given me back the hope that I’d packed away some time ago.
At Joel’s invitation I attend the monthly Beekeeper Association Meeting. He puts me in touch with beekeepers who live a little closer to where I am. One of the three beekeepers has hives within walking distance. He’s just as kind and generous as Joel. His wife makes sure I have a veil to wear since I’m catching these bees straight off the hive. It’s definitely scarier that way. The first day there one of the guard bees tries to warn me off by buzzing my head (this is before Marti has secured a veil for me) but when that doesn’t work to drive me away she stings me on the leg. A sting from an angry bee has more pain juice than the self-administered ones. Or this could just be my imagination.
I still mourn the bees. I still have a tough time reconciling their lives for my gain. But I’m working toward a cure. I’m living with hope for a pain free future. And, I haven’t had that hope in a long, long time.
To date I’ve had a total of 298 stings. I’m working to reach venom immunity before the worker bees cozy in for the winter. If I don’t quite make that, my trust is that the autoimmune inflammation will be halted enough for me to get through the winter without any more damage to my affected joints. I’ll take the supplements that will help rebuild cartilage and maybe even the bones and joints. I’ll keep up with the exercises I’ve started to strengthen my arms and provide support for my wrists.
When summer comes, if I need to, maybe I can find more bees.
I may, as Joel said, need to become a beekeeper myself.