It's easy to be cynical as you walk through this small gray house in Bethesda. Seniors discuss “fire pathways” and “healing crises” as earnestly as they would their grandchildren. Signs soliciting donations are taped to the walls and strategically placed on end tables. And a woman calling herself Amber Rose, who speaks in the practiced whisper of a librarian and signs her name with a floral flourish, is stinging her guests with honeybees.
It's easy to be cynical—if you're healthy. But the people who come to Amber Rose's free clinic don't have that luxury. They have been rendered crippled and swollen, blind and incontinent, by multiple sclerosis (MS), a degenerative nerve disease that causes the immune system to attack the body's nerve endings. MS has no known cure, and no specific treatment. Having exhausted the palliatives of conventional medicine, the women and men visiting Rose have cast their doubts aside and turned to an unproven anodyne: bee venom therapy (BVT) or apitherapy.
“I'm 53 years old, and this is the nuttiest thing I've ever done,” say Marisa Van den Bosch, after a round of treatment. As she fiddles with her clear plastic cane, her arms twist to reveal six little welts swelling around tiny stingers. Diagnosed with MS 27 years ago, Van den Bosch is one of the luckier patients: She can still walk. “But I was feeling worse, and regular medicine didn't have much to offer.” BVT, she says, alleviates her stiffness and pain and gives her renewed energy. Leo Montgomery, who wears a T-shirt emblazoned with bees, recounts how BVT improved his vision. It also helped his chronic pain. One day it took him 45 minutes to walk to Rose's from the bus stop. After his 20-sting therapy session, the walk back only took five minutes.
Twice a week, some 20 MS patients are brought by family, the Red Cross, or Metro Access to Rose's to be stung. Some, like Van den Bosch, are relatively healthy, while others, like one 30-something man, are in the disease's vegetative end game.
As Rose flutters around her house greeting a batch of visitors, her apprentice Duke—whose unused first name is Hurbert and who resembles a thinner, less pompous Ed Bradley—calmly unscrews an old jam jar filled with bees. Duke sprays a little water into the jar to pacify the swarm. Using surgical tweezers, he gently grasps the head of a female worker bee and carefully pulls her from the jar. He lays the tweezers on the dining room table, with the bee squirming just over the table's lip. He lays another tweezer on the round table, and another, and another, till he has created a buzzing fan.
Rose scoops the tweezers off the table in threes, and poises them one at a time over the acupuncture points on Leo's legs. Bounced against human flesh, most of the bees sting, a kamikaze tactic that rips apart their abdomens. Duke scrapes the dying bees between lid and lip of a Country Crock margarine container.
“You know when President Reagan was shot, and somebody jumped in front of him? We all have an innate tendency to sacrifice ourselves for another. Bees are part of that wonderful tradition,” gushes Rose. Besides, she says, bees only live for four to six weeks, “so it's not like we're depriving them of a long life. Most medicine is made from animal products. We're living the questions. We don't have all the answers.”
This is true. Rose cannot charge for BVT nor make any claims about its benefits. That's because scientists have yet to determine how—and if—bee venom helps MS patients. The venom is known to contain anti-inflammatories and a compound called apimin that may improve the ability of nerves to transmit their signals. Apitherapy advocates speculate that the sting distracts the renegade immune system by giving it an acute problem to attack. Another theory suggests that symptoms are mitigated by cortisol produced by the adrenal glands in response to the sting.
The method of delivery might be unknown, but these people have no doubts of the curative powers of bee venom. “I've got a pretty advanced case of MS; I've been in a wheelchair for 20 years,” says Doris Matchett. “After my change of life I was very weak. I wasn't able to write, and I had to get a friend to fill out my checks. Since BVT, I never ask anyone to help me write. It may not seem like much to you, but it's important.”
Matchett, the bees, and everyone else in Rose's house were brought together by the Washington Post. Two Junes ago, the paper ran an article about Calvert County resident Pat Wagner, an apitherapy convert who was teaching other MS patients how to sting themselves from her house. The article inspired MS patients from all over America to make a pilgrimage to Wagner's. “It was like a little Lourdes down there,” says Van den Bosch. “There were gurneys being wheeled in. One man carried this little bundle of bones like a sack of potatoes. It was his wife. There were people in wheelchairs and on stretchers out on the lawn, waiting to get in.”
Already a licensed social worker and acupuncturist, Rose chanced to read the Post article, and had an immediate revelation: Why not combine BVT with acupuncture and make the bees sting on specific points? She showed up at Wagner's house the next day.
Amber Rose was born Judith Rosen, and she sang professionally under the stage name Rose Redwood, the latter half being her husband's family name. But she liked the name Amber, because “Amber is the petrified tears of pine tree. After years of tears and struggle, my pain hardened like a diamond.” For a while, she was Amber Rose-Redwood. But some of the tears and struggle ended in divorce. The husband left, taking the Redwood with him. It wasn't until she had almost finished her book The Bee in Balance (financed by an accident settlement) that she learned that St. Ambrose was the patron saint of beekeepers. “It was an unconscious thing,” she says.
Rose owes her inspiration to Wagner and St. Ambrose, but her bees to Charlie Mraz, a 90-year-old Vermont beekeeper she met at an apitherapy conference in China. Mraz began stinging himself to alleviate his rheumatoid arthritis in 1934 and has been the poster boy of apitherapy ever since. Upon their return to the States, Mraz gave Rose three hives. They placed the hives in the back of his station wagon, and began the drive from Vermont to Maryland. When it got warm inside the car, the hives opened. Thousands of bees crawled all over them for most of the 13-hour trip. “We were never stung. It was my initiation,” laughs Rose.
Once she had hives, she quickly accumulated patients. Some were advised by their doctors to give BVT a try. Others had been driving three hours to Wagner's, but found Rose's house at 5419 Roosevelt St. more convenient. Most seem to enjoy the social hour that precedes and follows BVT as much as the effects of the venom itself.
Rose, meanwhile, has turned the experiences of her home clinic into a cottage industry. She travels the country speaking to MS patients and hawking her book. She has been interviewed by numerous new-age and self-help magazines. The publicity has swelled her clinic with still more people desperate to find relief.
Another batch disembarks from taxis designed for the handicapped. “Bring Nathan all the way back here,” Rose calls out from the dining room.
An old Barry Goldwater crony and the founding dean of American University's school of business administration, Dr. Nathan Baily is the last man you would expect to find in this I'm-OK-you're-OK environment. His hair is combed and lightly oiled in the style favored by powerful men of the late '60s, but his eyes water with obvious pain. His calves have atrophied and are wrapped in Ace bandages. His feet—like those of all the patients here—are swollen and purple. He cautiously evaluates BVT's cost/risk, as if passing judgment on a mutual fund.
“It's difficult to quantify,” he says methodically. “I don't know that BVT has counteracted the effects of MS, but I stopped getting worse.”
Rose quickly jumps in. “Your handwriting has improved enormously, right?” she asks.
“Oh, absolutely,” Baily's attendant quickly interjects.
“I think another change we've noticed in Dr. Baily is that he looks alive, he holds his head up. Nathan's even been flirting with me,” Rose says.
Except for Baily, most of Rose's patients say that the bee stings are relatively painless—even pleasant. A few have had a “crisis of healing,” an itchy, painful reaction that usually occurs, says Rose, about the fifth stinging session. Some who come to this free clinic are even supplementing BVT with conventional acupuncture by Rose, partly as a way of compensating their guru.
MS patients can learn to sting themselves and order bees through the mail, says Rose, provided they have a bee-sting kit in case of an allergic reaction. And thanks to pressure from patients, medical doctors are using injectable bee venom in double-blind studies to document the effects on MS patients. Though Rose worries that injectable venom might not have the same results as stinging—alcohol used to swab the arm could neutralize the venom's active ingredients—she realizes that without medical trials, the practice of using live bees will never gain credence.
“People should have access to all kinds of treatment. Using live bees allows patients to take their health in their own hands. If you've got a beehive, you can treat the whole neighborhood,” she says. “I'm just an old hippie from the '60s. My modus operandi is to push for change.”
But why stop at MS? Since AIDS also attacks the immune system, Rose hopes to convince HIV-positive patients to give apitherapy a try. In 1990, Dr. Jose GeovaneD'Andrade of Brazil eschewed AZT to treat his own HIV with apitherapy. He documented that his T-cell count more than tripled from 303 to 975 in the first three months, and stayed at around 450 for three years.
Encouraged by D'Andrade's research, Rose is trying to recruit 20 HIV-positive patients who are not using AZT—or any drugs or alcohol—to come to her for BVT. She admits that such a study would hardly pass scientific muster, but it might increase pressure on the mainstream medical community to test the effects of BVT on AIDS.
She opens a cupboard filled with jars of bees. “There's so much lifeforce in bees,” sighs Rose. “Do you know that aerodynamically, bees are too heavy to fly? But they do anyway, because of their lifeforce. Can you imagine giving somebody with AIDS this kind of energy?”