CLAYTON — Kimberly L. Ricci lays on her stomach at home as a honey bee stings her back roughly an inch from her spine, highlighting the lengths those with chronic Lyme Disease will go in attempting to curb the pain.
Ms. Ricci has lived in Clayton for three years. She’s a bartender and now owns her own flower business. She was diagnosed with Lyme Disease 15 years ago, and then again this year, but this time the tick-borne illness was possibly nourished along by COVID-19.
The controversy around Lyme Disease is complex and extensive, to the point where some journals call it a war. It’s considered a nightmare to at least one infectious disease doctor in Watertown. Patients come in with pain, and it takes a while to even get a positive Lyme test. Once they get it, patients are often prescribed an antibiotic for a few months. They’ll be fine in many cases, but there are enough people out there whose symptoms continue after the antibiotics. The patients then go back to a doctor and — despite them being in pain and feeling the symptoms of Lyme Disease — there are little signs that Lyme is actually present. That’s when patients get frustrated and oftentimes begin shopping around to other doctors or clinics in hopes of finding a solution, which can be detrimental to their mental health and bank accounts.
“I do believe there are patients who do suffer from it,” said Dr. Marleyne J. Duah, who’s been an infectious disease doctor for roughly 24 years and works at Samaritan Family Health Center. “But more antibiotics are not the answer.”
Dr. Duah then has to consider other factors. Could it be another illness, physical or mental? She’s almost handcuffed by there being no results that she has to investigate it being some other illness, and oftentimes it makes her out to be the bad guy to her patients, when in fact she cares deeply about Lymes.
“There are no signs of Lyme, but the patient is suffering,” she said. “What do you do? It’s all very subjective.”
In Ms. Ricci’s case, she had Lyme Disease roughly 15 years ago. She had swelling and joint pain back then, but a couple rounds of antibiotics all-but relieved it. Fast forward to December 2020, when she tested positive for COVID-19. She said it felt like the worst hangover she’s ever had for three weeks straight. But then the joint pain came back and stayed. Her hands would swell and the joint pain would be so severe that she couldn’t get out of bed for days at a time. It took her back to 15 years ago. She would end up showing signs of Lyme Disease again in February, and it appears her COVID-19 case was affecting it. Dr. Duah said it’s possible the COVID-19 case caused the Lyme in Ms. Ricci to flair up. Another possibility that Dr. Duah and Ms. Ricci are not ruling out is that it could be COVID-19 long haulers, which is when symptoms persist for weeks if not months after they first test positive. Either way, COVID-19 is either helping her Lyme along or it’s doing all the work.
“I feel for her,” Dr. Duah said. “It becomes a vicious circle of not feeling well.”
Getting to the point where venom therapy from bees feels like the only option takes time, money and pain. Ms. Ricci is no fan of holistic medications. She spent months in and out of doctors’ offices this year, opening a credit card to pay a clinic north of $5,000 up front for appointments and medications. She went from working 15-hour days in 2020 to barely working two days in a row. She often stays awake for 72 hours at a time because the pain is so intense, then she sleeps for 20 hours, has a good day and then starts the cycle over again. Her hands were so swollen that she couldn’t open any gifts on Christmas.
“I’m not suicidal,” Mrs. Ricci said, “but if a doctor tells me this would be the quality of life now, I would tell my family I love them and it’s nothing personal, but I’m jumping off a bridge.”
The feeling of helplessness among Lyme patients is somewhat common, and it drives the controversy around it.
By the time Ms. Ricci saw Dr. Duah, she had already been to the Stram Center for Integrative Medicine near Albany. Ms. Ricci would end up opening a credit card and spending roughly $5,000 at the center this year before she decided it was too much, she said. She didn’t want to get into massive debt. The last straw was when the center wanted to treat her with an anti-malaria medication, but since she has Lyme and not malaria, her insurance wasn’t going to cover it, she said.
Thus, the honey bees come into play. Some argue their venom can be effective against bacteria that causes Lyme. She knew someone who had success doing it, and she found that it was working for many others, so her attitude is why not try it? She tells people she’s going rogue, and she knows some people may think she’s crazy.
“People think I’m a lunatic,” she said. “But I’ve run out of options. This is my last hope.”
She started with one bee sting every few days and hopes to work up to 30 stings a week.
“It’s funny that I’m doing bees, because when I went to the Stram Center, I saw on their website that it was a lot of holistic stuff,” she said. “You’re not going to give me an herb and make me feel better, and here I am getting stung by bees.”
Above all, she hopes this serves as a way to shine light on the issue. Ms. Ricci likens the pain to a mental illness that’s physical, as it takes time convincing loved ones and others that what she is going through is real.
“I just want to be taken seriously,” Ms. Ricci said. “People are like ‘You don’t look sick.’ That’s the hardest part. People lose their families, they go into crazy debt, they can’t work.”
And the worst part about venom therapy is not the sting.
“The worst part is that the bees are going to die,” she said. “I swear after all this is done I’m going to be a beekeeper.”