Near-Death Experience Sparks Book
Thursday, May 1, 2003
Joe Tornatore nearly died after two bee stings. The experience inspired him to write his memoirs.
"I find humor in the face of adversity. It keeps me balanced," he said.
Tornatore, 41, a social worker for the state, suffers from a rare skin disease called Mastocytosis. Although he's not allergic to bees, if he's stung, his body has a similar reaction and goes into anaphylactic shock.
While undergoing a two-year immunotherapy program, Tornatore wore a beekeeper's suit when he traveled outside to guard against stings. He kept a diary about unusual encounters he had while wearing the suit. Late last year, he self-published a book about his experience.
"I hope this book gets me a viable publisher," Tornatore said in a recent interview from his plush home in Gloucester Township.
"To wear a beekeeper's suit in the post-terrorism age, you need to have a damn good reason and a pretty healthy self-esteem," he said.
Tornatore recently completed an immunotherapy program at Kennedy Memorial Hospital in Stratford and the doctors assured him that he should be fine if he's stung by a bee again. However, he still has an epinephrine injector and a spare beekeeper's suit, just in case.
Although he's a social worker by day, his passion is writing and he dabbles in thrillers and short stories.
"The most sensational story I wrote was true," Tornatore said.
The 157-page book features humorous accounts of Tornatore trying to live a normal life while wearing a beekeeper's suit. He wrote about some of the places where he received strange looks and comments - at carnivals with his kids, riding in his brother-in-law's Saab convertible, at a vacuum cleaner store, at Home Depot, at a Chinese food buffet and many more.
"I ran into so many funny situations that it helped me cope. It was cathartic," Tornatore said.
He also detailed his two encounters with bees that almost killed him, especially the second one that put him on a ventilator in July 2001.
During an interview, Tornatore and his wife, Diane Goodfellow, 42, took turns recalling the incident, which happened two weeks before their wedding.
Tornatore was attacked by bees in his back yard. Within minutes, he passed out, turned blue and began foaming at the mouth. He got to Kennedy Memorial Hospital in Stratford just in time.
"It was touch and go for a while, the doctors told me," Tornatore said. "My tongue swelled up as big as my fist."
He said doctors had outlined in pen a circle on his throat to cut an airway via a tracheotomy but instead managed to snake a breathing tube through his mouth.
Tornatore doesn't remember much of his experience, although his wife said she still has nightmares about almost losing her then-fiance.
"It was the most traumatic experience of my life. He can laugh about it, but I remember the IVs and ventilator," said Goodfellow, who is also a social worker.
Tornatore's friend and co-worker Mike Petrucelli read parts of Stop and Smell the Silk Roses while Tornatore was still writing it. Petrucelli remembers Tornatore walking into the office wearing a beekeeper's suit and hearing about the funny encounters.
"What I took away from the book was that Joe kept his sense of humor through it all," said Petrucelli, 44, of Medford.
Television producers from Ripley's Believe it or Not heard about Tornatore's story and filmed a segment about him. The episode is still in reruns.
Tornatore donated his beekeeper's suit to the Ripley's museum in Atlantic City.
Tornatore said he's learning to co-exist with bees, and he couldn't imagine an insect bite could put him on a ventilator.
He hopes to inspire people with his book and make them laugh a little, too.
"I think I turned sour grapes into a fine merlot."