Dan Doniger had his first anaphylactic reaction from wasp stings at age 15, on a 30-day wilderness survival course in the Adirondacks. It was his first near-death experience.
Dan was raised in Westport, and spent many hours outdoors in nature and on basketball courts. He graduated from Staples High School in 1976.
After 20 years of writing and occupational adventures, he “shot myself into the air and landed as a nurse.” Now he is home hospice nursing in New York City, meditating and growing veggies, herbs, mushrooms and flowers in the Hudson Valley, working on prison reform, and being “as noble a husband, grandfather, son and householder as I can be.” His mother Audrey has lived in Westport for the past 60 years.
If you were in downtown Westport in the 1970s or ’80s, sitting at a table outside Oscar’s Deli perhaps, and it was a sunny, mild early autumn afternoon, you may have noticed a woman with a butterfly net.
She hovered over the garbage cans on the street, a shoulder sack slung across her body. Out of that she brought a glass jar, unscrewed the lid, placed a honeybee or wasp, and put back the cover. She waved the butterfly net among the pastrami rinds, black-and-white cookie crumbs and corned beef debris, collecting one yellowjacket after another.
But this was no garbage picker, no vagrant. She was a wasp whisperer, an immunologist pioneer, a master of medicine. She was a doctor who opened my mind and changed my body: Dr. Mary Hewitt Loveless.
I first met Dr. Loveless with a butterfly net not on Main Street, but 22 Cavalry Road. It was both her home and medical office. She roamed the bushes and flowers in her yard, collecting wasps and putting them in glass jars.
I went to her because I recently had a severe anaphylactic reaction to wasp stings. It came close to being fatal, until a shot of epinephrine reversed it.
The visit to Dr. Loveless became a 4 to 5 hour session. She induced wasps to sting me by holding their wings in tweezers and directing their stingers into my forearm, then monitoring the reaction. T
These treatments, given once a year or every other year, led to the production of protective antivenom antibodies. They have proved successful in preventing severe anaphylactic reactions.
My family was already familiar with Dr. Loveless because my sister had been stung several years before when she was 5. My panicked mother called her beloved pediatrician, Dr. Albert Beasley, who told her to bypass the ER and take her directly to Mary Loveless.
My mother held Dr. Beasley in high regard. She did as he told her, and did so without regret.
Dr. Loveless lived and practiced medicine in Westport after retiring in 1964 from a distinguished career in clinical work and research, mostly in New York. In developing live venom immunotherapy, she bucked mainstream immunologists who were using a derivative extract made from wasps’ crushed whole bodies. Dr. Loveless believed there were impurities in this method, and a more effective treatment existed in the venom itself.
It was courageous of her to treat her patients with the very venom that could produce a severe or fatal reaction. But she combined a shaman’s confidence in the laws of nature with a medical scientist’s trust in rigorous, evidenced-based results. She flirted with harm, while producing immunity.
Dr. Loveless guided me to be calm and observe myself, should I be stung outside the clinical setting. With each future wasp sting, I sat calmly and observed the reaction. I’ve had swelling, itching, hot hives rise up my trunk and arms towards my neck, with a pulse slowing down. Each time I remained calm, and my body reversed the reaction.
I didn’t get my first epi-pen until the mid-1980s. I continue to refill prescriptions, but they expire unused every year. With Dr. Loveless’ doses of native wasp medicine, and her prescription to remain calm and observe myself, I’ve received precious gifts.
Dr. Loveless’ former home and office at 22 Cavalry Road is gone now. In Westport, where she lived and worked for decades, there are only ghosts of her achievements.
Elsewhere, her legacy of antivenom antibodies in the hundreds of people she treated are also vanishing, as we age out.
It makes sense that someone, somewhere is practicing medicine with live wasps and using Dr, Loveless’ research to good effect, but I do not know who. Since Dr. Loveless’ death I have neither met another practitioner who works with live wasps, nor learned how to induce wasps to sting me.
But as it has been 35 years since my last treatment, I’m game for one or the other.