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Homeopathy’s Rocky Road: Will the Castoff Practice Ever Go Mainstream?

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See also “Homeopathy 101: A Look at the History and Criticism.”

Dr. Peter Prociuk was in 10th grade when he realized he wanted to go into medicine. Inspiration came in the form of a broken hand—crunched between two classroom desks—that sent him to a bustling ER.

Dr. Peter Prociuk. (Photo by Jared Castaldi)But after completing medical school, Prociuk found he was frustrated by the limits of traditional medicine. He turned to homeopathy—an alternative medicine that uses ultra-dilute remedies to bolster the body’s own healing responses.

He’s not alone. More than a few licensed medical doctors in the area have embraced homeopathy, even as some of their more outspoken colleagues dismiss it.

“At first, I thought it was hogwash, really nonsense that these highly diluted solutions could do anything,” says Bernardo Merizalde, a Conshohocken doctor who’s board certified in psychiatry and neurology.

After reading homeopathic reference books nearly three decades ago and finding them credible, Merizalde began to incorporate homeopathy into his work. He’s had other doctors accuse him of quackery, but he’s also come to see the results homeopathy can deliver, and he views it as a medical specialty. “In order to be a good homeopath, I believe one should be a medically licensed practitioner,” he says.
 

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How does it work? The concept behind homeopathy is this: “Like cures like.” Symptoms are a body’s response to a problem or disturbance. As such, they should be encouraged. So, a patient suffering from skin irritation might receive Rhus Tox, a remedy derived from poison ivy.

The recipe, put very simply, is as follows: Mash up 1 pound of poison ivy, drop it in 9 pounds of alcohol. Shake well, cut it in half, and add water. The result is a one-half dilution.

Made by federally regulated pharmacies, the remedies are prescribed in even smaller concentrations via sugar pills that have been moistened with the diluted liquid. The smaller the fraction, the higher the dosage.

The theory is that, though the poison ivy is practically nonexistent in the finished product, the liquid retains a “memory” of it in the form of an electromagnetic signature. Its energy remains.

“It’s the spark that lights the fire. The explosion isn’t in the spark,” says Prociuk.

Since May, Prociuk has been spending Fridays at his second office in Wayne—a shorter trip for some of his clients on the Main Line. In West Chester, his main office is far from a cold, antiseptic exam room. Two large windows let in plenty of light. The walls are the color of a ripe peach. Red and blue comforters cover armchairs. Tea steeps.
 

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Much of Prociuk’s interaction with patients in this space consists of discussions. As a state-licensed doctor, he can prescribe antibiotics and order blood work. But he’s equally likely to ask patients how, if they were an artist, they might draw their pain. The office closet is filled with hundreds of prescriptions in brown vials, each about the size of a lip balm tube.

Now 58, Prociuk has spent 20 years dispensing homeopathic remedies in Chester and Lancaster counties. In that time, he estimates he’s treated about 15,000 patients for everything from anxiety to migraines to infertility.

There have also been patients he’s sent immediately to the hospital.

“One, who came from England, was almost in a hyperthyroid crisis. There are a few true medical emergencies, and hyperthyroid crisis is one of them. She had a resting pulse of 130, shortness of breath, and was thin as a stick,” he says. “She said, ‘I want you to treat me.’”

Prociuk doesn’t welcome that. “That’s an enormous responsibility,” he says. “There is a limit here.”

Working in emergency wings in Philadelphia and Paoli in the late ’80s and early ’90s, Prociuk found traditional—or allopathic—medicine to be great for treating things like broken bones and appendicitis. But when it came to chronic problems, he felt that pharmaceuticals were only dealing with symptoms, not resolving the underlying disturbance. “I would have patients say, ‘You can get rid of my wheezing, but what can you do so I don’t have the asthma?’ I didn’t have an answer,” he says.
 

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Prociuk began looking into homeopathy, connecting with Lancaster’s Henry Williams, whose practice he would eventually inherit. As he learned more about homeopathy, he discussed it with his colleagues. One day, a beleaguered ER unit clerk asked if he could treat her 2-year-old son’s ear infections. “It was a severe case—he’d had tubes placed five times,” Prociuk remembers. “Every morning, his pillow was stained with a large amount of pus. He was hearing impaired, and his speech was delayed. Emotionally, he was overly attached to his mother; he’d never spent a night in his own bed.”

Prociuk spent three days researching possible remedies and finally settled on calcarea carbonica, which he prescribed. The next day, the boy’s mother called to say he’d slept in his own bed for the first time, the pus was gone, and his hearing had improved.

Prociuk can’t quickly explain why he settled on that prescription. It was a complicated process that involved observation of total symptomatology, including mental and emotional states, sweat and bowel patterns, plus other factors. Homeopathy, he says, is about treating a person, not a symptom.

Merizalde also sought out homeopathy as a young doctor. “When I was doing my clinical rotations in my last year of medical school, I saw patients taking conventional medications for the rest of their lives for asthma, arthritis, high blood pressure, depression, sleep disorders,” he says. “I just didn’t feel that was a good way to live.”

Merizalde cites the recent case of a 3-year-old patient for whom a regimen of strong allopathic drugs had failed to treat night terrors and temper tantrums. He won’t divulge what he prescribed for the child because he doesn’t want someone with the same symptoms to assume it will work for them, too.

“I gave him homeopathic medicine, and within 24 hours, he was all better,” he says. “This is something that I see very often.”
 

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Homeopaths don’t treat symptoms. And therein lies the inscrutability of homeopathy that maddens critics and sometimes practitioners. Medical journals, including Mayo Clinic Proceedings, have concluded that homeopathic remedies produce results similar to placebos. But homeopaths say those studies don’t always respect the difference in methodology and the personalized nature of treatment.

The National Institutes of Health—which notes that nearly 4 million adults used homeopathy in 2007—concedes that “some individual observational studies, randomized placebo-controlled trials and laboratory research report positive effects or unique physical and chemical properties of homeopathic remedies.”

But the most recent shot in the arm for the homeopathic community came from French virologist Luc Montagnier, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2008 for his discovery of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). In February 2011, he found that DNA left an electromagnetic signature in water even after it was gone.

“I can’t say that homeopathy is right in everything,” Montagnier told Science magazine. “What I can say now is that the high dilutions are right. High dilutions of something are not nothing. They are water structures which mimic the original molecules.”

The seemingly restrained remark made headlines and earned Montagnier derision from some quarters. He was cheered by homeopaths, who recall that Samuel Hahnemann, who founded homeopathy in the late 18th century, was a respected man of medicine himself. In fact, Hahnemann University Hospital in Philadelphia was once a homeopathic facility.
 

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Alicia McKelvey, a thoracic surgeon at Paoli Hospital, doesn’t practice homeopathy, but she considers it legitimate.

“Homeopathy is a well-described practice. You have to go to someone who’s reputable—a standard medical doctor,” she says. “‘Alternative’ typically means outside the realm of scientific proof, but homeopathy does have proof. It’s just not mainstream.”

Art Paviglianiti, owner of Spring Run Natural Foods store in Kennett Square, sees the value of homeopathy as both a patient and a retailer. He claims to have lost 64 pounds in six months using an over-the-counter homeopathic supplement called human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG). Still, he says the remedies can only go so far, as physical conditions are attributable to behaviors. “No one just wakes up obese,” Paviglianiti says.

Perhaps the one person on the Main Line who’s most anxious to bridge the gap between allopathic and homeopathic medicines is Dr. Todd Hoover. He runs a family practice in Narberth and is the president of the American Institute of Homeopathy. He also sits on the board of the Homeopathic Pharmacopeia Convention of the United States, which regulates homeopathic remedies. And when his back hurts, he takes Motrin.

“I approached it as a skeptic,” he says. “I think the nature of this work is extremely empirical. Homeopathy is a tool.”

Like most homeopaths, he’s willing to spend the time necessary to make a diagnosis. But he avoids psychoanalyzing. “If it’s a rash, they show me the rash,” says Hoover.
 

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For Merizalde and others, the scientific foundations of homeopathy are stable enough, and its implications and potential are huge, particularly with respect to the senior population. “Many elders take an average of eight to 12 different medications, some to treat the side effects of others,” says Merizalde. “I think that homeopathic medicine could help reduce the cost of care and be a solution to the healthcare crisis.”

For more, visit homeopathyusa.org.

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