Sunday, February 13, 2005

Near-Death Experience Sparks Book

Thursday, May 1, 2003
When your life turns bizarre, why not write a book about it?
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."

Saturday, February 05, 2005

Affiliation with Ripley's Believe It or Not

When Ripley’s Believe It or Not televison left a message on my answering machine in 2001 even I could not believe it. On April 16-17, 2002 I filmed for the popular TV show. My episode has been rebroadcast a half dozen times to date. It chronicled a Mastocytosis man who survived some freak bee attacks only to wear the protective apparel of a beekeeper’s suit outdoors to increase personal safety. In 2003, I thankfully discarded the beekeeper’s suit to lead a more normal but redefined life thanks to the completion of a venom immunotherapy program at the University of Pennsylvania Hospital in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. One of my daughters suggested donating the retired suit to a Ripley’s Believe It or Not museum. I followed suit, no pun intended. The Ripley’s Museum in Atlantic City not only accepted the donation they decided to erect a statue of me in their Survivor’s Gallery. The grand opening for the exhibit is slated for Memorial Day weekend 2005.
The television show peeked my childrens interest. They began to order Ripleys Believe It Or Not hardback almanacs. From 2001-2004, the children would flip through the glossy pages looking for their father. They unmercifully questioned me why Ripley’s doesn’t include me in the book. In 2004, I wrote a tongue and cheek letter to Ripley’s Entertainment asking them to consider me for their book series. I figured to get back a rejection letter to show the children and quell their expectations. Ripley’s Cartoons got hold of my letter. They contacted me by email inviting me to be the subject of their famous comic strip panels, which are published in 37 countries around the world. I agreed. After the comic strip researcher heard about my near death experiences with bees, my rare skin disease, the case of mistaken identity in public wearing the beekeeper’s suit, he thought my story deserved more print than the comic strip could afford. He refered my story to the department known as Ripley’s BION, who profile unusual people with unsual stories in their hardback book series. By the next day, I was signing releases and shipping photos to be included in their 2005 Ripley’s Believe It or Not book published by Scholastic Books. That is the story of how a man who knew nothing about Mastocytosis got stung by a bee and wound up in a museum, a comic strip, in a best selling book, and on TV. Believe It or Not.

Stop and Smell the Silk Roses

Pictured is the protective apparel Joe Tornatore wore to stay alive after successive bee sting attacks nearly killed him. Joe suffers from a rare skin disease, Mastocytosis, which effects only one in a half million people. Insect venom is one trigger for the unusual disease. In 2001, Joe nearly died from two ordinary bee stings before learning the medical frailty of his skin disease. Believe it or Not, Joe was stung twice in the same location four weeks apart. His wife is credited with saving his life after the second bee attack. While driving with Joe dying in their minivan, Diane miraculously came upon a car wreck with an ambulance on the scene. Diane disregarded the police detour and drove to the accident scene. Rescue workers transported Joe ahead of the intended accident victim to the closest hospital, where life-saving measures were taken and he was placed on life support. Once he fully recovered from the second attack, Joe wore a beekeeper’s suit outdoors as a justifiable precaution against insects until he successfully finished a complex immunotherapy program at the University of Pennsylvania Hospital.
Stop and Smell the Silk Roses is his humorous autobiography about his many cases of mistaken identity navigating the community like a Boy in the Plastic Bubble during the post September 11, 2001 era. He has been mistaken for everyone from an astronaut, World Trade Center worker, butcher, fireman, dogcatcher, to terrorist. His odd journey has been featured on two television shows, in newspapers, in a comic strip, and as an exhibit in The Ripley’s Believe It or Not museum in Atlantic City, New Jersey plans on re-creating Joe’s likeness for a life-size display. Read his memoirs and share his unique sense of humor.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Ripley's Believe It or Not TV Appearance

My appearance on Ripley’s Believe It or Not first aired the night of July 24, 2002. It has since aired a half dozen times but the first time you see yourself on television is special. The week leading up to the TV debut, I informed close friends and colleagues about the airdate. I also forwarded emails to all 271 registered members of The Mastocytosis Society whom share my same peculiar disease.
A few hours before the show aired, I began receiving a few stray calls. The on-screen programming guide did not list me as a guest for the Ripley’s show. It was nerve racking enough I began to think what could potentially be more awkward. Having my friends watch me on Ripley’s Believe It or Not or telling your friends to watch and end up nixed from the show. My nerves tightened. I uncharacteristically drank a half bottle of wine before the curtain call.
Nonetheless, about a minute into the show Ripley’s ran previews for my segment. I came on about halfway through the hour-long show. If I can stake claim to dubious bragging rights, I was the anchor in the episode of oddities. I looked to be carrying extra weight on television so I didn’t mind playing the heavy.
My episode evoked a lineup worthy of a carnival atmosphere. I shared precious airtime with monkey brothers from India, a boy yo-yo wizard, an underwater swimming dog, and a clan of hillbillies who shot anvils in the southern sky for sport. Only a movie theatre could have magnified me more on the big screen than our 64-inch high definition television.
In and of itself, my segment, presented with dignity and human interest. I was more relieved than excited. As a social worker who advocates for the rights of handicapped clients, I did not want to lose respect being portrayed as a sideshow. The segment summarized the previous year of my life into six finely tuned minutes. The editing and narration were excellent. Our four kids were immortalized on the silver screen, and home movies of our wedding proved touching.
It is a very strange to see yourself showcased on television. A lot of buried emotions splintered through my head. The telltale sound of buzzing bees played in my ear. The memories of nearly dying flashed like a light bulb. Then the memories disappeared as quickly as they came. Call me Gilligan but I felt empathy for the suited guy Ripley’s Believe It or Not portrayed. I was that masked man.
A respected friend summed it up best when he said. “Only Joe could come within a whisker of dying and be on national television a year later becoming famous off of his tragedy.”
Life is about overcoming handicaps and turning negatives into positives. Social work didn’t have to teach me this. But next time I got to remember to not come so close to the grave for supplemental income.
*excerpt from autobiography Stop and Smell the Silk Roses
Link to TV's Ripley's Believe It or Not episode guide

Philadelphia Inquirer October 1, 2001

So Sensitive to Stings, He Covers Himself Outdoors
Joe Tornatore’s condition worsens his body’s reaction to insectbites. After two brushes with death, he wears a protective suit. Philadelphia Inquirer By Will Van Sant Monday, October 1, 2001