By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
"Good lord, I spent $25,000 just on signs," Ralston says, shaking his head in exasperation. "I'd like to think people have got the message by now."
Most do get the message. In fact, by the time most people reach Ralston's clinic, they have heard of him through word of mouth. Ralston says many of his clients are already sold on certain aspects of natural healing for humans, so applying the same principles to animals is no great stretch. Even two years after the veterinary board ordered him to post his signs and obtain signed consent forms from pet owners, Ralston still boils with resentment. Such bureaucratic nonsense, he thinks, only serves to stilt his relationship with his clients--who almost without exception have already heard of his unconventional treatments and have come specifically for that purpose.
"Doesn't the government already control us enough?" he says. "They just want more and more control."
Laura M. Gentry, Norman Ralston's maternal grandmother, is never far from his mind or his practice. She looks down from a framed sepia-toned portrait hanging on a clinic wall. In the photograph, she stands beside her husband and is dressed in a wide-brimmed hat and her Sunday best. "Miss Gentry," as Ralston refers to her, raised 11 daughters and two sons on a family farm in the Red River country north of Dallas. She lived to be 89, and that woman knew something about animals.
"She could pull those animals on the farm through anything. I've never seen anything like it," Ralston says. Miss Gentry was widowed long before Ralston was born, but for years she kept the livestock healthy and the farm running on her own. Through the course of a typical day at the clinic, Ralston invokes his grandmother's name two or three times. He will tell a client about a particular poultice she made that drew infection from a wound like a magnet. Or the time she put an extension agent in his place for trying to sell her on chemical pesticides for her crops.
"She told him not to come near her with that stuff," he says. "Long before there were any studies to prove it, Miss Gentry knew all those pesticides and preservatives couldn't be a good thing."
Ralston says his grandmother always stressed the importance of questioning authority and the power of seeking knowledge. "She always encouraged me to listen to others' ideas politely, but not to take what they tell me at face value. She wanted me to seek answers for myself, and to keep learning throughout my life."
Ralston graduated from Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine in 1945 and opened his first practice in Mount Pleasant, treating both large and small animals. Ten years later he moved to Dallas, opened another clinic, and started working only on small animals.
Well-schooled in conventional veterinary science, Ralston knew little of alternative medicine until the late '60s. In 1965, his 13-year-old daughter was diagnosed with curvature of the spine--scoliosis. He says he immediately took to researching everything written on the condition during the last two centuries, hoping to find an alternative to the conventional treatment--the surgical implantation of a 14-inch steel rod in his daughter's back.
"Unfortunately, I didn't find anything acceptable back then, and we went ahead with the surgery," Ralston says, his eyes welling with tears. "It still hurts me to talk about it. She came through the surgery all right, but I was never satisfied with our decision. If I had known then what I know now, I could have cured her in three weeks for about $20 with acupuncture."
Ralston leaped zealously into everything alternative--chiropractic care, vitamin and herbal therapies, acupuncture, homeopathy--and he has remained a believer ever since. A regular student and speaker at New Agey institutes throughout the country, Ralston says he wakes each morning at 3:30 and studies until 5. "There's just so much to learn," he says, eyes wide behind big square glasses. He eats lunch each day from a brown bag in his tiny office, usually nibbling a sandwich between patients.
His reputation is well known among the handful of veterinarians who incorporate holistic therapy into their conventional practices. The American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association counts 15 such vets in the state of Texas, with six of them practicing in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
"I run into people all the time who know of Dr. Ralston. He's just been at it for so long," says Dr. Shawn Messonnier, a Plano vet who says he devotes about 25 percent of his practice to holistic methods such as acupuncture and nutritional therapy. And though he still uses conventional medicine on most of his patients, Messonnier is not hesitant to criticize the members of his profession who ply animals with drugs and expensive medications when they might be able to treat a condition with a more natural approach.
Cortisone and other steroids, for instance--the great evil in Ralston's mind--are too often "an easy way out for vets," Messonnier says. "It's often given automatically, without really getting a good diagnosis first."
But drug therapy and surgery are drummed into students from the moment they enter school, says Messonnier, who graduated from Texas A&M's program in 1987. He got no training in holistic care when he attended school there. Ten years later, A&M shows no sign of adding even the slightest hint of alternative education to its curriculum.