April 2024


Bumblebees and O’Neill’s Cat

Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold

In the early 1970s, I came upon the name of Dr. Daniel Hiebert in a biography of Eugene O’Neill which I was reading for my master’s program.  He had been the playwright’s roomate in Boston in the years around World War I   (when O’Neill was studying creative writing at Harvard and Hiebert medicine at Boston University) and was lured to Provincetown in 1919 where O’Neill had settled with his second wife Agnes Boulton.  Hiebert delivered O’Neill and Agnes’ son Shane, one of almost  fifteen hundred  babies he brought into the world in his fifty-three years as a the only doctor on the Outer Cape.

Hiebert was a force of nature, and he became a legend in Provincetown for his indefatigable devotion to his own brand of medicine. A revered fixture in Provincetown life for decades, he birthed babies, stitched fishermen, made house calls at all hours of the day and night, created the first ambilance service on Cape Cod, served as the medical professional for the US Coast Guard during WW II, and even tended many a household pet in the absence of a licensed veterinarian.  Today many of his methods and prescriptions might be considered unorthodox, but there was never any doubt that Daniel Hiebert’s mission in life was to save lives.  I know because I was one of those lives – a summer tourist who passed through the doors of his clinic for a brief moment, but who never forgot the gift of caring and humanity I had received.

This story is my small tribute to someone who was larger than life….

(from Round Trip A Collection of Short Stories  Weiala Press 2017)

Camilla came to just at the wrong moment. Disoriented, she raised her head from her prone position only to feel it crack hard against a window sash.  Hands immediately pulled her back, and she realized she was lying on a stretcher that was being awkwardly maneuvered through an open window. The four paramedics struggled to negotiate the sharp angle of the dilapidated Victorian porch and to pass the stretcher and its occupant into a waiting room filled with expectant but unsurprised faces.

The door to the house had proved too narrow so the wide veranda window seemed the only option and even that was a tight fit. A few more lurches and thrusts and Camilla, now fully awake, felt herself lowered onto the ground, then gently lifted up onto the sofa which had quickly been vacated by the waiting-room patients.

Despite her swollen eyes, engorged tongue, and bloated face, she was able to see a grey-haired, bespectacled man standing above her, syringe in hand. She heard her husband Nils’s panicked voice running through all the possible causes for Camilla’s fainting and going into what appeared to be anaphylactic shock.  The doctor quickly administered the epinephrine injection and popped an adrenalin tablet into Camilla’s mouth, all the while listening intently to Nils.

“We ate at Ciro and Sal’s – no, no fish, nothing exotic, pasta and eggplant parmesan, some red wine…..”

“Not that,” the doctor snapped curtly.  “Before that?”

“Before that?  Earlier?” And then Nils remembered. “She was stung by a bumblebee this afternoon in the car.  I put ice on it when we got back to our cabin, and she seemed fine ”

“That’s it!” the doctor exclaimed.  “Where?”

“On her left shoulder.”

The old man quickly loosened Camilla’s blouse, found the huge red welt, went back into his examining room, and re-emerged, armed with tweezers, alcohol, and gauze.  Despite his advanced age and gnarled hands, his touch was precise and firm, and with one flick of the tweezers he removed the stinger and cleaned the wound.  By the time he finished, Camilla was feeling revived by the adrenalin, a lot less dizzy, and she realized she was beginning to be able to swallow once again.

“So, little lady,” the doctor said, “do you feel up to standing and coming into my office?’

Nils helped his wife up, and they made their way through the motley waiting room assemblage – fishermen with bleeding hands, young men high on marijuana or worse, crying babies. Settling Camilla, then himself in two leather chairs opposite the old man’s massive, battered mahogany desk, Nils read the brass nameplate: Daniel Hiebert, M.D.  Without bothering to introduce himself or ask his patient’s name, Dr. Hiebert cut directly to the point.

“Do you feel better?  It looks as if the swelling is coming down.”

Camilla looked at her hands, which were returning to their normal size.

“Open your mouth,” Dr. Hiebert commanded as he reached across the desk with a tongue depressor.  “Say ‘ah.’  Yes, much better.  You were choking when you came in.  Almost back to normal now – your tongue, that is.”  Coming round the desk, he felt her pulse, listened to her heart and lungs, and then perching on the desk opposite her, said, “So, young lady, tell me exactly what happened.”


It had been a brilliant summer day on the Cape, and Camilla and Nils Carlsen were reveling in the few days of vacation their newlywed budget could afford.  They had driven up to Truro from New Jersey in their decrepit Buick and settled into the tiniest of the Whitman House cabins for a four-day holiday. On Saturday afternoon they had rolled down the windows in their airconditionless automobile and headed down the back roads toward Corn Hill Beach. 

Camilla was wearing a bright yellow floral set of shorts and blouse, which, to the hapless insect that lit on her back, must have resembled a huge sunflower.  Camilla, who harbored a life-long fear of bees, never saw the bee or felt it crawl down under her blouse until all at once she felt a stabbing pain in her shoulder and screamed.  Nils swerved to the shoulder with the car coming to an abrupt halt just short of the ditch at the side of the road.  By now Camilla was hysterical, flailing her arms and continuing to shriek.

“Get out of the car!” Nils commanded, tugging her by the hand.  He began to pull his wife’s blouse over her head.  As he did, a half-dazed bumblebee the size of a cherry tomato fell to the ground. Nils promptly dispatched the dying insect by stepping on it and then put his arms around his wife and hugged her tightly until her sobs ebbed.

“Come on, let’s go back to the cabin and put some ice on it,” he said, handing the still dazed Camilla her blouse.

By the time they reached their little room in the woods, the welt on Camilla’s shoulder was very swollen.  Nils found some ice in the room fridge and applied a compress. He also poured Camilla a glass of chilled white wine. Half an hour later the redness seemed to disappear; the wine had settled Camilla’s nerves, and the shadows were lengthening through the woods.

“Do you feel like dinner at Ciro and Sal’s?” Nils asked. The legendary Provincetown eatery was always their first pick for dinner whenever they visited the Cape.

“Sure,” agreed Camilla.  “I’ll change, and we’ll go early before it gets too crowded.”

They drove to P-town along 6-A past the tiny rows of beach cottages that lined the narrow strip of land between the ocean and the bay. Camilla could not help but note their colorful names – all flowers like Rosebud, Gardenia, Dahlia.  She thought about the flowers on her outfit that afternoon and made a mental note to wear less colorful clothing that would not act as an aphrodisiac for bees on future outings.

The dinner at Ciro and Sal’s was romantic and delicious as always.  After sharing a half bottle of Chianti, Camilla and Nils were feeling mellow. So as they walked down Commercial Street hand in hand toward the pier, it did not immediately strike Camilla as odd that her hands were beginning to tingle – first the palms, then the fingertips and then her lips!

“I feel itchy, hon,” she noted softly.

“Maybe something you ate?”

“I just had my usual.” And then she stopped herself. “Oh, God, hope it’s not botulism from canned tomatoes,” she exclaimed, referring to the recent lethal outbreak which had been in the news of late.

But before Nils could reject that comment, Camilla looked down at her hands.  In the time it had taken to walk a single block, they had swollen to four times their size. Her plain gold wedding band was sinking into the growing fleshiness, and in seconds her lips began to curl upward toward her nose and downward toward her chin.

“Nils,” she stammered.  “I feel very dizzy. I can’t breathe well…”

Nils steered her toward the open door of an art gallery. “My wife needs to sit down for a minute,” he told the proprietor.

The man did not argue but began to proffer Camilla a chair, when she collapsed to the floor and lost consciousness.  She woke a few minutes later as Nils was trying to open her mouth and holding down her tongue so that she could get air.

“Call an ambulance, please!”  But the gallery owner had already dialed.

On Saturday evenings in summer Provincetown the narrow Commercial Street is in theory open to vehicular traffic, but it is really a massive pedestrian mall with crowds filling the roadway as they amble through town. Somehow miraculously, however, the ambulance arrived from Arch Street, and the paramedics quickly slapped an oxygen mask on Camilla and loaded her stretcher into the vehicle. Nils climbed in beside her, babbling on about how it might be food poisoning.

The paramedics were swift and silent.  Turning on their siren and flashing top light, they managed to clear a path through the sea of humanity.  “We’re going right down Commercial Street – fast – there’s a clinic there.  Just breathe deep, miss.”

Camilla closed her eyes and tried to obey.  Before she lost consciousness again, she had a fleeting ironic thought about the movie Love Story, which they had seen just the week before.  Thinking this story might end the same way, she managed to form three words with her swollen lips, whispering to her husband, “I love you.”


Dr. Hiebert had listened carefully to the narrative, and when he was convinced that the crisis had passed, he sent Camilla back to Truro with a supply of adrenalin tablets.  He handed Nils his card and told him that if Camilla had any further reaction to call this home number at any hour of the day or night and “you will get me or Mrs. Hiebert.”  As Nils pulled out his wallet, Hiebert said, “No, I want to see you back here tomorrow morning at 10:00 a.m. before you head back home, so we can settle up then.  Off you go!”

And with that he ushered them back out through the still teeming waiting room and motioned silently for the next patient to come in.

Exhausted Camilla and Nils went to bed as soon as they got back to their cabin.  But a few hours later Nils was awakened by his wife’s plaintive voice calling his name.

“Nils, my heart is beating so fast it feels as if it is going to explode.”

Nils sat up in bed, flipped on the light, and put his head to her chest to listen. Sure enough, her heartbeat was pounding. Trying to remain calm, he said, “I’m sure it’s just the adrenalin, but I am going to call the doctor.  He said we could, no matter what time,” Nils added, noting that it was just past midnight.

Nils dialed, and despite the hour, a wide-awake woman answered.  He explained the situation, apologizing for having disturbed the doctor.

“No disturbance,” Mrs. Hiebert replied. “Dan is not here right now.  He’s out stitching up a fisherman, but he should be back soon, and he will call you. Give me your number and where you’re staying.”

Nils told her they were in the Whitman House cottages and gave her the direct room line.  For the next forty-five minutes Camilla tried unsuccessfully to fall back to sleep while Nils pretended to read, waiting for the phone to ring.  But instead, both were startled by a robust knock on the door.

“Who is it?” Nils asked, jumping up.

“Dr. Hiebert.”

And sure enough, as Nils threw open the door, there stood the doctor, black bag in hand, his driver in tow.

“Damn,” he muttered as he crossed the threshold. “I had a devil of a time finding this cottage.  You didn’t tell my wife the number.  I had to wake them up at the desk.”

Stunned by the 1:00 a.m. house call, Nils could only stammer, “I don’t know if it’s serious.  I just thought you would call us….I….”

“No problem. I was out in Wellfleet stitching a finger tip back onto a fisherman  He put it in his pocket and called me to come.  It was just as easy to stop on my way home.”

All the while as he spoke in a soft voice he was checking Camilla’s pulse and listening to her heart rate.  “Well, I’d stop the adrenalin tablets,” he concluded. :”That’s what’s got her going, but otherwise she looks fine.  Allergic reaction seems to be suppressed.”  And with that he pulled out a syringe from the bag and gave Camilla a shot. “This should relax you.  Try to get some sleep, and I’ll see you in the morning.”

“You, too, Doctor. Thank you.”

“Oh, I’ve got one more call to make before I go home.” He smiled and left as swiftly as he had come.


The next morning came rather quickly after only a few hours of sleep, but somehow Camilla awoke feeling refreshed and her old self again.  She and Nils treated themselves to a huge breakfast of pancakes and eggs before packing the car and heading up to P-town.

This time they entered the clinic by the front door, finding the waiting room no less crowded than it had been the evening before. They waited about half an hour before Dr. Hiebert came out, and seeing them motioned them to follow him.

“So, how do you feel, miss?”

“So much better.  I can’t thank you enough, Dr. Hiebert.”

The doctor scribbled a prescription on a pad.  “Two doors down..take this to the pharmacy and fill it before you go.”

“What do we owe you, Doctor?” Nils asked.

“Uh, make it $25.”

Nils and Camilla could not have looked any more surprised, but they knew better than to protest. They paid in cash, shook hands, reiterated their thanks, and left.


A few months later, Camilla, who was working on her master’s degree in literature, was immersed in Eugene O’Neill’s biography when she exclaimed:

“Nils, come here, listen to this!”

She read her husband a passage which talked about Eugene and Agnes’ who were living in Provincetown in the early 1920s, bringing their cat, Anna Christie, to Dr. Hiebert for emergency surgery after the cat had been seriously injured by a dog attack.  Hiebert had been O’Neill’s Harvard housemate for a time and had come to P-town in 1919 to set up his practice, enjoying a friendship with the playwright and his wife and delivering their son Shane.

“It’s got to be the same Dr. Hiebert,” Camilla said to Nils, “because the dates work out.  He’s probably in his eighties now.”

“Must be,” Nils agreed, and together they read on in the biography:  how Hiebert had been the very face of medicine in Provincetown for five decades, delivering babies, tending the dying, performing surgery in his humble clinic, creating the first rescue squad using the hearse as an ambulance and enlarging the porch window on his clinic home to accommodate the stretchers, and treating emergencies day or night.  Unique in every sense, he practiced medicine in a hands-on, old-fashioned, people-centric, sometimes eccentric way. He would treat a duck or a cat with as much care as his human patients; he would keep O’Neill “just sober enough to finish his play Anna Christie,” or dispense B-12 shots to anemic druggies without lecturing.

“Amazing,” Camilla remarked when they finished reading. “We should stop in and say hello when we go up this summer.”

However, intent on finishing their degrees, one summer hastened to another, and Camilla and Nils never returned to Provincetown until June 1973.  It was a glorious sunny morning as they took a leisurely stroll to 466 Commercial Street. The old captain’s house looked the same as it had three years before, but the doctor’s shingle had disappeared. And though the oversized window dominated the porch, it was sealed shut and draped in lace and velvet curtains. Thinking that the 19th century edifice seemed more a rooming house than a clinic, Camilla was determined to discover what had happened. She strode down the short walkway and rang the bell.  A bearded man with long, straggly hair, wearing overalls, answered the door.

“We’re looking for Dr. Hiebert,” Camilla announced.

“He died last year, miss. His wife has moved in with her daughter.  We’re fixing it up as a B&B. Not open yet.”

He started to close the door, but Camilla cried, “Wait! I knew him.  He saved my life!”

The man hesitated a moment and then said softly, “Come on in.  I can show you the obituary.”

Camilla and Nils stepped over the tools and the pieces of cut molding into the large room that had been Hiebert’s waiting room. The man disappeared and came back with a small clipping from the Provincetown Advocate.

Camilla and Nils read silently.  “Did you know him?” she asked the man when she had finished.

“Oh, yeah. Everyone did. He delivered me and my brother. He was the only doctor for fifty miles, and there wasn’t much he couldn’t or wouldn’t do. He had pills for everything, if you know what I mean?  A regular Dr. Feelgood.”

The remark, jarring as it was, did not really surprise Camilla and Nils.  What had Hiebert given her that night three years ago in the syringe that made her sleep? And yet, what would have happened to her without his emergency care?

“They don’t make ‘em like ol’ Hiebert anymore,” the man continued. “He sure was an original!”

Silently, Camilla nodded. Original, unorthodox, uncannily effective, flawed and human – an old-fashioned medicine man who didn’t give a damn about insurance or malpractice liability or the rules of the game, but a man who did care about life and saving it in any way he could.

And as she framed those thoughts, another realization struck Camilla like a lightening bolt – a realization that for Dr. Hiebert must have been a daily thought: that existence was tenuous, life fragile and precious.  Without Dr. Daniel Hiebert, she, Camilla Caruso Carlsen, would have been one of those casualties.


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Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold 's new book is Round Trip Ten Stories (Weiala Press). Her reviews and features have appeared in numerous international publications. She is a Senior Writer for Scene 4. For more of her commentary and articles, check the Archives.

©2024 Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold
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