CHELSEA WAS A SIX-YEAR-OLD COCKER SPANIEL with the usual panoply of ear and skin complaints. There was nothing about her to suggest she would be the dime on which my life turned. But one day in 1994, she presented with something new. She’d stopped eating and was lethargic. On physical examination, she had a high fever and was painful when her mouth was opened. There were no other problems, so the presumed diagnosis was the early stages of masticatory myositis, in which the jaw muscles become inflamed by an autoimmune disease so that eating is impossible.

The treatment for masticatory myositis is high daily dosing with prednisone, but something about Chelsea told me to give her antibiotics as well, “just in case”. Sure enough, Chelsea was back next day with her right eye completely disfigured and pushed right out of her head. She had a retro-orbital abscess that the immune-suppressing prednisone had fanned to life, and which the antibiotics had then been incapable of addressing. Every time Chelsea opened her mouth, the back of her jaw pushed up into the eye region and elicited pain. Her owner stated she didn’t want the dog back until the problem was solved. It was too grisly a sight for her.

Surgery to start

The standard approach in a case like this was to use forceps to bluntly tunnel from the roof of the mouth into the orbit, and allow the pus to drain downwards into the mouth. The surgery is fairly straightforward, but in Chelsea it didn’t work. The tissues of the entire region were so edematous that the tract closed as soon as the forceps were pulled back out. Since the abscess could not drain that way, and the eye was severely protruding, drying out and turning cloudy, a different approach was needed. A slit was made in the conjunctiva, and by pushing the eyeball backwards, pus could be squeezed out from behind it and through the slit, lessening at least some of the pressure.

This makeshift surgery proved helpful and the eye moved back a little into its socket as pus gushed out. But the amount of pus the eye kept forming was astonishing in spite of every antibiotic I tried. I expressed a full tablespoon of pus from behind that little eye three or four times a day!

Meanwhile, Chelsea’s pain was unrelieved, and the eye itself was steadily deteriorating. Despite consistent treatment over the next few days, the cornea became drier until finally it was like brown leather on an eyeball that still protruded from the skull. She also wasn’t eating and looked miserable. This wasn’t working.

I consulted an ophthalmologist to see if he would take her on. He said cases like Chelsea’s occasionally happened, but there wasn’t much that could be done. He added that the assumption was a foreign body must be behind the eye, but exploratory surgery invariably failed to find it. He could consider enucleation, but the infection would likely then spread up the optic nerve into the brain, killing the patient. In short, he could only see one likely outcome for Chelsea – euthanasia. The thought of euthanasia repelled me. Chelsea had an otherwise healthy body. It didn’t make sense to me that I would have to destroy her for the sake of one eye. But she was also in terrific pain and was miserable. What could I do?

Homeopathy does the trick

Chelsea happened to show up at a critical time in my career. I had been dabbling with homeopathy – slowly cutting my teeth on it by using acute-acting remedies for minor first aid situations. I’d yet to see homeopathy work for a situation where there was no other recourse, yet this was the reason I had got into it in the first place. Whether I liked it or not, Chelsea was going to be that test case.

The first step, of course, was to discontinue the prednisone and antibiotics. In my experience, homeopathy can be started while animals are still on drugs. But the medications weren’t helping, and something told me I needed this to be as clear a test of homeopathy as possible.

• The first remedy I knew right off the bat, given the first aid books I’d been reading. Hepar sulphuricum is a common homeopathic first aid remedy for acutely painful abscesses. Within a day of liberally dosing Chelsea with it, the discharge turned from purulent to clear, but remained copious. The eye developed a bit of a shine to it, becoming white instead of leathery.

After two more days, there were no further improvements, but I was excited. Something good was happening. The question was what to do next.

• All I had to guide me was Kent’s Repertory. It listed all the remedies credited with treating a particular symptom, but it was written in the 19th century when the field of medicine used vastly different terminology. “What would they have called this?” I muttered as I flipped through the pages in the eye section. Chelsea didn’t have an abscess any more, just profound generalized swelling with a clear discharge. But it wasn’t pitting edema, either. What was it? Then I saw the heading, and instinctively knew I had the answer: orbital cellulitis. By sheer luck, there was only one strongly ranked remedy to deal with it: Rhus toxicodendron.

I gave the remedy three times a day, and within two days, Chelsea’s eye had settled completely back into the socket. The corneal opacity had disappeared. I could scarcely believe my eyes – or hers either! A day later, I felt I was witnessing a small miracle as I discharged a healthy dog back to her owner.

A week later, my heart was thumping with anticipation as I called to check on Chelsea. Her owner confirmed the eye was still completely healed, and added she could no longer even remember which eye had been the problem. A critical hurdle in my evolution as a veterinarian had been cleared in those few days. I saw homeopathy conquer something for which conventional medicine could only offer death as a solution.