Chance: Frustrated with traditional treatments, some with debilitating ailments put their faith in an unconventional remedy - bee venom
April 21, 2003
By Stephanie Desmon
By the time the grandfather clock strikes 12, Pat Wagner's modest living room is already filled with visitors - they're strangers really, whose faith and ailments have brought them into the world of the woman they'll come to call the bee lady.
They hear she has something that, if it doesn't cure what ails them, it at least offers hope of relief - something many of their doctors have been unable to do. So twice a week, they roll up their sleeves, hold out their legs, lift up their shirts for the bee lady who asks where it hurts - and then stings them with bees.
"Anything's worth it to get out of this chair," said Allen Ridgely, a 39-year-old who has spent the last 14 or 15 years suffering from multiple sclerosis, which has caused him to use a wheelchair for the past two years. "I said, 'It's the one thing I haven't tried, so I'll try it.'"
Since Ridgely started taking the 150-mile round trip once or twice a week from Woodbine to Waldorf three weeks ago, he has been able to pick his feet off the ground, something he figured he would never do again. Before he got sick, he walked 10 miles a day as a water-meter reader for Howard County; now he can't walk 10 steps. Maybe, just maybe if the bee stings work, he will get back some of what he has lost over the years, he hopes.
What she is doing is called apitherapy, api being a prefix from the Latin for bee. While the medical community remains skeptical at best, she and others who practice this form of alternative medicine see bee venom as a wonder treatment for symptoms of MS, arthritis, osteoporosis, cerebral palsy and more.
Pat Wagner is not a doctor, just a fellow patient. In 1992, 22 years after her MS diagnosis, the 41-year-old mother of two could no longer walk, could not even sit up in a chair. She was bedridden. Her bones felt like ice. She couldn't see who was entering her room. She was deaf in one ear.
"The doctor told me, 'There's nothing more I can do for you, Pat. Go home. Be happy for what you've had and get your affairs in order,'" she recalled recently.
Her mother had friends who were beekeepers and they had been hearing about a man in Vermont who was stinging patients like her with stunning results. Wagner was desperate, a "breathing corpse," she says, willing to try something as off the wall as letting someone intentionally sting her ravaged body with bees.
The first sting was on her knee and within 20 minutes, she says, her entire leg was warm. Within five weeks, she was walking again, albeit poorly. Soon she organized a meeting of other sick people, in hopes of helping them as she had been helped. Her husband, Ray - she has dubbed him "Sting Ray" - began cultivating bees in their yard so she would have enough at her disposal.
As soon as she was healthy enough, she started inviting people into her home for bee stings. She has been doing this for more than 10 years - at no charge beyond the payment of a hug and a kiss she extracts from each. She will take donations - an arthritis sufferer from Baltimore dropped $50 into a glass after her treatment - and she does sell products, such as her patented bee venom eye drops and a concoction made from bee venom mixed with emu oil that is supposed to be rubbed on the skin.
"I live for Mondays and Fridays," the days she stings, Wagner says, watching a 27-year-old woman stand up saying she has full feeling in her left foot for the first time in weeks. "I love it because look how she feels, look at what she can do that she couldn't do before. I know what it's like to lose something and get it back."
The 'victim's chair'
Into her chaotic and cluttered kitchen they come, one by one, to sit in the black chair she calls the "victim's chair" - the teen-ager with cerebral palsy, the 60-something polio survivor with brittle bones, the young mother still in pain from a car accident five years ago. Newcomers must first sign release forms - though no one has died in that chair, bee stings can be deadly to the allergic.
Ray Wagner is her helper. On the counter sits a plastic jar with holes poked in its top that once contained peanuts but now contains dozens of plain honeybees. He opens the jar and lets some out. As they sit on the windowsill trying to regain their bearings, he captures the bees one at a time by grabbing their heads with self-locking tweezers. Then they are good and mad - and ready to sting when Pat Wagner applies their bodies to Angela Robinson's calf.
Robinson, a 29-year-old accountant from Largo, lost sight in one eye on Mother's Day 1999. It turned out to be the first symptom of MS. She was put on a series of medications that didn't seem to make her feel better and actually made her feel worse. She heard about Pat Wagner three years ago, stopped taking her medication, and feels she has slowed the progression of the disease.
"Some people look at me like I'm crazy - like you get stung with what?" she said. "My neurologist doesn't like the fact that I'm coming here. [But] I would recommend this to anyone."
Doctors like hers and many in the medical community at large warn about the practice. They say MS patients may be more susceptible to a placebo effect, that they feel better mostly because they want to so badly. The National Multiple Sclerosis Society cautions that there is no solid research to back up claims of success, only anecdotal evidence, and that for those allergic to bee stings, it can be deadly.
"It was somewhat understood why people would go to any lengths to get relief from the disease because there was no alternative," said Dr. Patricia O'Looney, the society's director of biomedical research program. But since 1993, great strides have been made in drug treatments for the symptoms of MS, a neurological disorder that can manifest itself in many ways, from numbness to paralysis to any number of problems in between.
"There is no need for people ... to go to such lengths to try to have positive results when there are already approved treatments," she said.
O'Looney worries most about those who give up traditional medicine while pursuing the so-called bee therapy. She said the only proper study that was done on bee venom showed no improvement in lab mice and a worsening of the disease in some cases.
Dr. David B.K. Golden, an associate professor of medicine at the Johns Hopkins University who studies bee sting allergies, said the components of bee venom can have anti-inflammatory properties and could be helpful to the immune system, but he has seen no studies that prove its value to patients.
"But is there any harm in doing the bee stings? Only if you get allergic to them," he said. Wagner recently told a new visitor that she would know if she was allergic after the second sting, but Golden said each sting increases the chances of developing an allergy to them.
Proponents of apitherapy say the treatment dates to Hippocrates, the father of medicine. It became popularized over the past few decades, they say, after a Vermont beekeeper named Charlie Mraz who suffered from rheumatoid arthritis thought he would test out an old wives' tale that bee stings could relieve pain. He stung thousands of people over the years, and he found that the healing effects extended to MS as well.
Mraz died in 1999 at age 94. His daughter Michelle knows that what people like Wagner do is controversial but to her it's second nature. Michelle Mraz doesn't sting people but continues to sell a book about bees written by her father.
"I grew up with a jar of bees on the dining room table and people constantly
getting bee stings," she said. "To me it's very normal. If you've been
a consumer of traditional medicine, this is a very odd concept."
Copyright © 2003, The Baltimore Sun