The call came at 10:30 on a Saturday night.
Carol Ruzicka and Kathleen Edwards, friends who live a few doors apart in Newburgh Heights, had appointments to see Dr. Issam Nemeh that day, May 7.
Like some others who seek private appointments with the doctor known in town as a faith healer, Ruzicka and Edwards were left hanging as to the time Nemeh would see them.
They were told to wait for a phone call, and to bring cash.
When Ruzicka learned her appointment would be after midnight, she considered rescheduling. But she said the woman at Nemeh’s office told her they were already booking pa tients into April 2006 — 11 months ahead.
Ruzicka, 47, was worried about numb ness and tingling in her neck and shoulder. The symptoms are an occupational hazard for Ruzicka, who makes a living playing violin and teaching at the Cleveland Institute of Music.
The woman at Nemeh’s Rocky River office said that the doctor would help her feel so much better she would be “walking on air,” Ruzicka said.
She had faith. A recently converted Catholic, she had gone with Edwards to several crowded healing services conducted by Nemeh. But with scores of desperately ill and incapacitated people ahead of them, the women never got in.
So Ruzicka made an appointment.
“I was hoping to have a once-and-for-all cure,” she said.
Many others, driven by the same desire, travel to Cleveland-area churches and to Nemeh’s private practice.
The fact that the 51-year-old doctor practices an unorthodox type of acupuncture – a method that is scientifically suspect and discredited by some authorities in the field – seems to matter little to patients with aches, illnesses and faith.
His many supporters say Nemeh gives hope to those who need more than conventional medicine has to offer.
But as Nemeh’s popularity draws more patients to his private office, the inevitable bumping up between faith and medical science also invites a host of medical ethics questions. Among them is whether the licensed doctor promotes false hopes.
David Caraboolad of Columbus said Nemeh helped him overcome an intestinal disease a few years ago. But Caraboolad questioned Nemeh’s treatment of his mother, who saw the doctor regularly for her multiple sclerosis, which forced her to use a wheelchair.
Caraboolad, a 31-year-old self-employed Realtor, said, “Nemeh many times told her he would get her out of the wheelchair” and that he had done so for another patient with MS.
“He got my mom’s hopes up,” he said.
But his mother’s disease became progressively worse.
Nemeh’s representatives say most who receive the doctor’s touch are not healed. But they say that the Holy Spirit works through Nemeh and that some receiving his prayers have recovered failed eyesight and risen from their wheelchairs. Stories of Nemeh’s healing touch have made him the most sought-after doctor in town, Cleveland magazine reported recently.
Even skeptics agree that faith and prayer can improve one’s mental state, which can in turn promote physical health. Some also suggest that people who report being cured by faith healers are probably experiencing a placebo effect, a powerful phenomenon in which symptoms improve on the mere belief that a remedy is at hand.
But scientists say claims of long-term cures via faith healing have never been proven credible.
Dr. Arthur Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, said people who promote miracle cures are “crackpots” and “shysters.”
“There is no scientific evidence of any such curing ability, and if there is, it would be immoral not to publish what he is doing and teach it to others,” Caplan wrote in an e-mail. “I suspect there is no such evidence and thus he is abusing patients by offering false hope.”
A Canadian consumer health watchdog filed a complaint against Nemeh with the Ohio Medical Board in July.
While the board does not divulge complaints about doctors, Dr. Terry Polevoy of healthwatcher.net said he wrote to the board: “Faith healers who prey on the public, especially when they are also licensed to practice medicine, have to be exposed for what they are – faith scammers.”
A spokesman for Nemeh said neither he nor the doctor would comment for this story. Responding to critics, Nemeh told Cleveland magazine, “It’s hard to accept things that we cannot touch and we cannot measure repeatedly.”
“The success rate with what I am doing is so beyond our knowledge for today.”
But a number of former patients who paid for private appointments with Nemeh questioned his methods in interviews with The Plain Dealer.
Ruzicka, the violinist, said testimonials on the WEWS Channel 5 Web site had influenced her to see the faith healer. The Cleveland television station earlier this year ran a series of accounts of miracle cures at Nemeh’s touch. Most healing services have been at Cleveland Catholic Diocese churches.
Ruzicka and her friend Edwards said that when they arrived at Nemeh’s office the night of May 7, they each paid $250 in cash and received no receipts.
While the women waited behind two other patients who were bald and thin, apparently with cancer, the receptionist told them that spirits of Catholic saints visit Nemeh regularly.
The receptionist also said that on the day Pope John Paul II died, his spirit came to see Nemeh, both women said.
Patients described Nemeh’s treatment with a single, electrically charged needle, which he poked at different places on their bodies.
The Plain Dealer reported in June that the device is not clinically proven and has not been cleared for medical treatment by the Food and Drug Administration, which regulates acupuncture equipment. A Tennessee doctor sells the device and a five-day training course out of his home.
Patients also said Nemeh moved across their bodies what they describe as a vibrating, audio system subwoofer. Ruzicka said Nemeh told her it was for magnetic effect and that it would “lengthen me.”
Ruzicka said Nemeh’s treatment didn’t do anything for her neck and shoulder. But he inexplicably told her that a large callous on her foot would disappear. She said it didn’t.
“I am ashamed for parting with $250,” she said in an interview. “I should have known better.”
Some of those interviewed by The Plain Dealer also expressed regrets.
Rita Randall of North Olmsted said she paid Nemeh $250 to see her 68-year-old husband, Bob, who has dementia. She made the appointment after Bob was unable to sit through a healing Mass at St. Bernadette in Westlake in March.
Randall said she wanted to believe. But she was put off by the office visit.
“It seemed all about the money – ‘Do you have that check?’ – before they see him,” she said.
She was supposed to return for another appointment but didn’t.
“He [Nemeh] was trying to say Bob was on the road to recovery,” Randall said. “There was absolutely no improvement in my husband’s condition.”
She has since moved Bob into a nursing home, disillusioned with the notion of miracle healing.
“I think you have a lot of people who are vulnerable, and they’re going to have their hopes dashed,” she said.
Joni Heil of Bay Village said she went to Nemeh for back pain, but the treatment did not help. She questioned his practices, describing her experience in an e-mail:
“He covered a large speaker [for a sound system] with a towel and turned it on. It produced a significant vibration. He then buffed parts of my body with that. Weird! Then, he said he thought I would probably be cured if we repeated this treatment a few more times.”
Heil said Nemeh’s office called several times afterward and encouraged her to return. She declined.
Nemeh told Cleveland magazine recently that he advises patients to seek mainstream medical treatment while they see him.
Heil, Ruzicka and Edwards said Nemeh gave them no such advice.
Some patients have discontinued standard medical intervention after seeing Nemeh.
Dr. John Clough, a rheumatologist at the Cleveland Clinic, said he is treating a woman with arthritis whose joint pain and swelling came roaring back after she thought she was cured by Nemeh.
“She had stopped all her medication after she had gone to see this guy,” said Clough, who put the woman back on three medications.
Nemeh has said publicly that he can’t separate God from science. But others in the scientific and medical community see the lines more clearly.
Lawrence Krauss, chairman of the physics department at Case Western Reserve University, spoke harshly of Nemeh’s recent appearance at HealthSpace Cleveland for a healing service.
Krauss, who frequently weighs in on matters of scientific integrity, said the health education museum had no business hosting a faith healer.
“It’s a vast embarrassment and completely demolishes the credibility of the organization,” Krauss said in an interview. “If I were a trustee of that organization, I would resign or ask for the resignations of the people who organized it.”
A HealthSpace official said the museum provides an open forum on all health-related issues, including spiritual health.
“I would invite Mr. Krauss to visit our museum and research our educational programs . . . if he has any question regarding our credibility as an institution,” spokesman John Litel said in an e-mail.
Caplan, the medical ethicist from the University of Pennsylvania, said a doctor who gives credence to treatments that are not recognized standards of care is committing malpractice.
Judging by the demand for Nemeh, many Greater Clevelanders aren’t nearly as concerned.
Ellen Painter, 46, who was diagnosed in April with metastatic cancer, said she felt the presence of God during two office visits with Nemeh.
“He’s not rushed whatsoever like other doctors,” said Painter, who lives in Mentor. “You can sense a lot of love and a lot of spirituality.”
During her second visit on a Saturday night in May, Nemeh told Painter that her health had improved since the first visit earlier that month and that he did not need to see her again.
“He said he was not permitted to say anybody was cured,” Painter said. “My own interpretation – maybe he was telling me I would be cured.”
Caraboolad, the Columbus man, said the doctor successfully treated him for ulcerative colitis in 2000 and 2003.
“I was so sick when I saw him the first time, I would have done anything,” Caraboolad said. “When the guy touches you, an unbelievable amount of heat goes through your body. There’s a change that takes place. I can’t explain it.”
Caraboolad said that more recently he couldn’t get in to see Nemeh. He had an appointment on the Fourth of July weekend for back pain.
He said he gave up after Nemeh’s receptionist told him at 10 p.m. she still didn’t know when Nemeh would see him. Caraboolad said the next morning he left a phone message complaining, but he never heard back.
“My opinion of that operation is they’re so big they can’t control what’s going on,” he said. “They just want you to put absolutely everything on hold and when they want to see you, you better be there.”