NEWINGTON, CONN., NOV. 24 -- When Juliet Cheng's baby was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, she turned to traditional Chinese remedies to treat the girl: acupuncture, herbal medicines and massage.
But now Cheng is running out of time to prove that her faith in the medicine of her ancestors is not misplaced and that her daughter will not be crippled because of the treatments.
Cheng 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, against her mother's wishes.
Cheng had little exposure to Eastern medicine as a child growing up in Shanghai. Her father was a urologist who attended a Western-style medical school. He treated her with penicillin and other staples of Western medicine.
Cheng emigrated to the United States a decade ago and has raised her daughter alone. When Shirley was diagnosed with the crippling joint disease as an 11-month-old, Cheng first turned to an American doctor, who prescribed aspirin to ease pain in her swollen joints.
That did not help, Cheng said, so she treated her daughter with herbal potions and took her to China, where Shirley was treated with acupuncture, massage and concoctions made from animal glands.
Cheng said it was only during four extended trips to China that her daughter improved.
When Shirley suffered a relapse after returning from her last trip to China, doctors at Newington Children's Hospital said she 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 the state Department of Children and Youth Services to go to court in July to take temporary custody. In October, U.S. District Judge T. Emmet Clarie gave Cheng until Dec. 5 to demonstrate that non-Western treatment could help her daughter.
A homeopathic doctor, who treats Shirley with small doses of natural medicines, and a physical therapist, whom Shirley visits three times a week, say the girl has shown improvement. But doctors at Newington believe she has gotten worse, said Thomas Hanley, a hospital spokesman.
Sherwin Nuland, an associate professor of surgery at Yale Medical School, 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.
Thomas Moriarty, a spokesman for the state Department of Children and Youth Services, defended the agency's decision to intervene.
"Although this case has undertones of cultural and philosophical differences, we have to rely on what our doctors tell us," Moriarty said. "The bottom line is -- we have to protect children."
The U.S. Supreme Court addressed a similar issue earlier this year. In Fresno, Calif., the Laotian immigrant 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, Kou Xiong, but hospitals have refused to operate without consent from his parents, Ger and Houa Vue Xiong.