When Juliet Cheng's baby girl was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, she turned to traditional Chinese remedies: acupuncture, herbal medicines and massage.
But now Cheng, who emigrated from China a decade ago, is running out of time to prove that her faith in her ancestors' medicine is not misplaced and that her daughter won't face the rest of her life crippled because of the treatments.
Cheng already has lost temporary custody of her daughter, Shirley, now 7. And if the girl's condition has not radically improved by next month, a federal judge has granted doctors permission to operate on the girl, against her mother's wishes.
"I have the rights, not them," Cheng said as she waited to visit Shirley at Newington Children's Hospital, where the girl is living.
When Shirley was diagnosed with the crippling joint disease as an 11-month-old, Cheng first turned to an American doctor. He prescribed aspirin to ease the pain in her swollen joints.
That did not help, Cheng said, so she treated her daughter at home with herbal potions. She also took her back to China, where Shirley was treated with acupuncture, massage and concoctions made from animal glands.
Cheng, who has raised Shirley alone, says it was only during those four extended trips to China that her daughter showed significant improvement.
Shirley suffered a relapse after returning from her last trip to China about a year ago, Cheng said.
Doctors at Newington Children's Hospital said Shirley would never walk unless she had surgery to relieve the tightness in the tendons and ligaments around the joints in her hips, knees and left ankle.
Cheng refused and the hospital persuaded Connecticut's Department of Children and Youth Services to go to court in July to take temporary custody.
The two sides were back in court in October, when a U.S. District judge gave Cheng until Dec. 5 to demonstrate that non-Western treatment could help her daughter.
The U.S. Supreme Court addressed a similar issue earlier this year. In Fresno, Calif., the Laotian parents of a 6-year-old boy born with clubfeet opposed court-ordered corrective surgery because they believed spirits inflicted the defect to punish the family.
In June, the Supreme Court refused to overturn lower court rulings that ordered corrective surgery for the boy, but hospitals have refused to perform the operations without parental consent.
When Cheng could not find a traditional Chinese practitioner who also was a licensed medical doctor, as required by court order, she chose a homeopathic doctor.
Homeopathy is a Western-based alternative medicine that is popular in the Orient because it relies on similar philosophical principles. Practitioners use small doses of natural medicines to strengthen the body's healing powers.
Shirley is now receiving diluted doses of phosphorous and poison ivy to relieve the swelling in her joints and improve her appetite.
She also visits a physical therapist three times a week.
Dr. William Shevin, the homeopathic doctor who is treating Shirley, believes she could be cured and able to walk within two or three years if she continues the current treatment.
Shirley's physical therapist said the girl has shown slight improvement during the homeopathic treatment. But doctors at Newington believe she has gotten worse.
Dr. Sherwin Nuland of Yale Medical School, who has studied both Western and Chinese medicine, said Chinese treatment is effective in the early stages of rheumatoid arthritis. But once there is anatomical damage, surgery is the only answer, he said.
"She will be crippled for the rest of her life" without surgery, he said.