When Juliet Cheng's baby girl 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 isn't misplaced and that her daughter won't face the rest of her life crippled because of the treatments.Cheng has already lost temporary custody of her daughter, Shirley, now 7. And if the girl's condition hasn't 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 bitterly as she waited to visit Shirley at Newington Children's Hospital, where the girl is now living. "They cannot force me to do this."

Cheng had little exposure to Eastern medicine as a girl 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, hoping to go to college and become a lawyer. She met Shirley's father while taking college preparatory classes, but the two never married, and she has reared the girl alone.

When Shirley was diagnosed with the crippling joint disease as an 11-month-old infant, Cheng first turned to an American doctor. He prescribed aspirin to ease the pain in her swollen joints.

That didn't 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 says it was only during those four extended trips to China that her daughter showed significant improvement.

"I know it works because we've tried it so many times with Shirley. It helps her," Cheng said.

Shirley suffered a relapse after returning from her last trip to China about a year ago, Cheng said. A doctor in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., where the two were living with Cheng's own mother, suggested she consult a specialist at Newington Children's Hospital.

Doctors there told Cheng her daughter 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.

When Cheng couldn't find a traditional Chinese practitioner who was also a licensed medical doctor, as required by Clarie's order, she chose what she saw as the next best thing: a homeopathic doctor.

Homeopathy is a Western-based alternative medicine that is popular in the Orient because it relies on similar philosophical principles. Its 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, for two-hour sessions that sometimes try the little girl's patience. On a recent visit, the usually happy girl wriggled around the therapy table and complained, "I want to go home."

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.