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Homeopathy for Poison Ivy: A Case in Point

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Swede, a lovely, bright and effusive woman, has been a patient of mine for 15 years. She weathered her share of acute illness and some brushes with more serious pathology, but in the last number of years she enjoyed good health as she entered her middle years and now braces -- with equal portions of trepidation and enthusiasm -- for the transition to an empty nest. The youngest of her four children is preparing to be fledged, off to a far-away college this fall.

Swede calls me one morning at the crack of dawn as I putter in the fall garden, gathering in the last of the raspberries and inhaling the bittersweet end of summer as it marches across my yard to fall. She apologizes profusely for calling early, calling me at home, calling at all, but she has the worst case of poison ivy, and it was either calling me or going to the emergency room. My office appointments begin a few hours later; I ask her to come in at lunchtime, when I would have a few minutes. Emboldened by pain and anxiety, she pushes: Maybe she could come in before my first patient?

As have many naturopathic doctors, I see effects of poison ivy that truly take the breath away. I have observed large, excoriated tracts of skin weeping and crusting. I have seen faces blow up to be unrecognizable and limbs grotesquely distorted by swelling. I have been privy to genital exfoliation and plantar disintegration, all from the effects of this ubiquitous and pesky weed.

Swede presents none of the above. Instead, what I see when she gingerly rolls back her gauzy cotton sleeve, is a small strand of pearly vesicles, no more than two inches long. There was an even smaller satellite lesion with perhaps three tapioca-like dots. With unadulterated urgency she describes the intense pain she has, the sleeplessness and pure agony. It is, I am sorry to say, difficult to believe. She says she knows it doesn't look that bad, but it really is horrible and she cannot go another minute. She had self-prescribed the homeopathic remedy Rhus toxicodendron, a medicine made from poison ivy leaves, that morning and reported feeling somewhat better, so I send her home with instructions to call later in the day.

Between patients, reviewing charts, I receive her teary call. It is much worse, she is much worse; incapable of sitting still and unable to get a grip, she is scurrying around the house, hot and breathless. I ask her to go do me a favor: Try a cold compress to the area, and let me know how it feels. She reports that it gives a little temporary relief. I ask her to do the same with a hot compress. She lays the hot cloth upon the area in question and I hear a screeching yelp, like she placed her full arm on a sizzling hot wood stove. She begins to cry in earnest, wracking sobs, which I listen to as empathetically as telephone technology allows.

I ask a few more questions. She describes searing pain, like someone torturing her, dragging a not-quite-extinguished match along the soft, tender flank of her wrist. She says she had to keep moving, literally without stop. If she stops, the pain is exacerbated.

I have seen people who need this remedy get to such a point, with arthritis, with burns, with insect bites and yes, with poison ivy. I tell her to take the homeopathic remedy Apis mellifica, made from the honeybee, and to call me in the morning.

Swede did call the next day, bright and early, to say she was all better. NO pain. I asked if the eruption was gone and she said it was not, but it no longer hurt. She was planning on going to work -- and oh yeah, thanks!

I think about Apis mellifica when a symptom is both better from cold and worse from heat. You could expect to see swelling of the part in question in a restless, irritable person who seems oversensitive to pain or discomfort. The symptoms are often worse at night.

And with a patient needing Apis, there is often tremendous stress on the home front. In Swede's case, she was helping her youngest pack and get ready to take a giant step away from home. I believe that what should have been a small first-aid kind of situation took on larger proportion -- this was the way Swede somatosized her sad and mixed emotions. Once the poison ivy was gone, she jumped into that experience without the tremendous emotional upheaval that sometimes accompanies such transitions. Though the poison ivy caused an unpleasant few days, in a sense it seemed to me that she took much of the angst and worry and stress of the family transition and compressed it into this finite pathology. With Apis, it is not uncommon to see some sort of shift in the home life and attendant anxiety, as a precursor to the Apis state.

I enjoy treating acute problems with homeopathy in the context of my naturopathic medical practice. More commonly I see patients with more chronic ailments, and homeopathy will be only one aspect of our work together. The chronically ill improve, too, but seldom as dramatically and completely. In this of back-to-school time for families we often see the stress of transitions manifesting in physical ailments for both adults and children. It is helpful to remember that stress is frequently part of the etiology for all kinds of pathology, both acute and chronic.

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