A Question of Faith

As a window into the phenomenon that has made believers out of the desperate and doctors alike, Dr. Issam Nemeh talks about God, science and his critics.

Dr. Issam Nemeh sits on a stool and gives my right foot a quick once-over as I watch from an elevated easy chair in the small, simple treatment space in his three-room Rocky River office.

At first glance, my foot looks like any other foot. The bones that were in pieces after a fall in July 2004 — a "significant injury," according to my orthopedist — have managed to heal properly, despite my repeatedly ignoring doctor's orders. But the thing continues to swell and ache when I'm on it for any length of time, a normal part of healing that has become a major aggravation.

And the bespectacled, balding man in the black slacks and matching knit sport shirt believes he can make it stop — and not by conventional physical therapy or surgery.

Over the last several months, Nemeh, a Syrian-born physician, has come to be known simply as "the faith healer" in these parts, a reputation fueled by a series of glowing reports detailing Nemeh's exploits by NewsChannel 5 anchorman Ted Henry in February.

As a result, the man who sits before me is perhaps the most sought-after doctor in town. Appointments for a $250 session of his own brand of acupuncture are booked months in advance. And thousands, some reportedly from as far away as California and Hawaii, have waited in lines of biblical proportions for services he and his "healing team" stage at area churches.

They're hoping against hope for one of the miracles described by those who have gone before them: cancerous tumors that decrease in size or disappear entirely; vision that improves dramatically, even if the physical reason for the problem still exists; debilitating chronic pain that lessens in severity or vanishes overnight. The incredible occurrences seemingly resulting from the doctor's prayers — things other physicians can't explain or simply attribute to previous conventional medical treatment — flow like the wine Jesus created from water.

And so I sit down open minded, yet skeptical at the same time, for a treatment and one of the first official interviews with this very public yet mysterious healer.

The doctor places my foot on a massaging unit he invented using a subwoofer, amplifier and pulse generator. "Certain frequencies do certain things," Nemeh explains. "They have different effects."

Instead of turning the contraption on, however, he picks up a wandlike instrument and illuminates the top of my foot. Infrared light, he says, increases blood flow and reduces inflammation in injured areas.

I'm waiting for some traditional outward signs of prayer: bowed head, closed eyes, clasped hands. But they never come.

After several minutes of treatment and constant conversation, Nemeh suddenly interrupts me. "You're having the experience, aren't you, of the healing?" he asks, smiling benevolently.

"Am I?" I reply, feeling nothing out of the ordinary.

"Yes, you are," he states softly.

I take his comment quite literally and lift my foot in an attempt to see "the healing" he's talking about. "Don't push it, don't push it," he instructs, urging me to sit back and relax. "Let it be."

"I came in the office five years ago, legally blind and [looking] to, as I put it, see the show. I'd heard amazing things happen [in this office]. But I came in very crass, really, about what goes on up here. He told me on the first day, •You will have your vision totally restored.' ... Somewhere in that first year, he said, •At some point you're going to be the voice of the ministry.' There was no ministry. I can't say at that point I even got what was really going on other than I knew miracles were happening.

"Although I haven't received my vision, I get these signs. I can sit in this office, and my vision will clear. I can't see in the dark. But suddenly one night, for about 25 seconds, I could see everything in my room all illuminated just incredibly."

— Philip "Trapper Jack" Keller, 53, WDOK-FM morning drive-time personality, who suffers from retinitis pigmentosa, an often-hereditary disease of the eye

When I arrive for my treatment, Trapper Jack and the doctor's wife, Cathy, are waiting in a room that functions as the secretary's office and volunteer lounge. The walls and shelves of a massive bookcase are filled with crucifixes, portraits of Jesus, figurines of the Virgin Mary and other religious items, all gifts from Nemeh's patients.

The furnishings are relatively simple: an executive-style desk, a bar-height table and chairs, a small refrigerator, a shelving unit displaying various dietary supplements for sale. The doctor eventually emerges from the treatment room and joins us for a takeout lunch. The talk turns to summer vacations, and I ask the doctor where he goes to take a break from his marathon workdays, which often begin at 6 a.m. and continue into the wee hours of the morning.

"I don't have enough time in the day anymore — people calling, crying on the phone," he explains between bites of chili. "I can't think about laying off, sitting back. I don't need to recharge. I have the Almighty running in me."

A volunteer announces that she's leaving the office to get a manicure and pedicure, and the half-dozen people present burst into laughter at the comment's timing.

"I haven't had even a haircut for a year," the doctor muses. "I cut it myself."

It's a small sacrifice for the ministry — a cause they seem to vacillate between wanting to share with everyone and hold close to themselves.

The family is extremely private, Cathy says. She's unwilling to tell me even the most basic details: her maiden name, where she went to college or what she studied there. And the doctor doesn't seem to remember or want to elaborate on basic facts of his personal history, particularly when it comes to his training.

When asked about his childhood, the 51-year-old says only that he grew up the son of a water-department supervisor and his wife. He was a quiet child, raised Catholic, who always knew God could heal others through his prayers.

"It was not a discovery for me," he says. Witnessing God's healing power was "happening all of the time" — so routine, he says, that he's never thought of himself as possessing the gift of the Holy Spirit as described in the Bible. "It's a matter of belonging to Christ."

However, Nemeh's first calling wasn't to the cloth or even to medicine. He studied engineering in Damascus before leaving Syria at 16 to pursue a medical career. Nemeh says vaguely that he attended medical school "in Poland," then adds, "a couple of places: Warsaw , Gdansk, Katowice." (According to the state medical board, he graduated from the Ludwika Warynskiego Silesian Medical Academy in Katowice in 1980.)

After a number of months at hospitals in Germany, the names of which he doesn't remember, Nemeh came to Cleveland in 1982 "because God told me to," he says.

He met Cathy, then a 25-year-old graduate student, in September of that year at a gathering in her Syrian-born parents' home. "She had a lot of love in her for other people," Nemeh recalls. "I was very impressed by that."

But when the shy doctor mustered the courage to ask her out, she turned him down, pleading jet lag after just returning from a vacation in the Middle East. A mutual friend talked her into accepting, and the two went to see a movie. (She slept through "E.T.") The couple got engaged on Christmas Eve of that year and married the following April.

"He told me then that [people] would be coming by the thousands to Cleveland to be prayed over," Cathy remembers. "I said, •Really? What are you talking about?' But I knew he was very special, and I believed him."

"For about a year, [I had] trouble with my back: pain in the back and pain running down the right leg. I found it difficult to stand for any longer than 15 minutes. It wasn't always bad at the beginning. But it got increasingly worse. So when a friend said, •Just do me this one favor and go and see this doctor. He'll help you a lot,' I was ready to do that. I did not want to have back surgery.

"I began to see Dr. Nemeh on a regular basis, I would say every two weeks or so, certainly for a year. And I noted over that time that the pain lessened, that I was able to stand for a longer period of time at Mass without pain. In fact, it has become so that I can stand through the Mass — for an hour."

— Rev. Robert Welsh, 69, vice president for mission at St. Martin de Porres High School and former president of St. Ignatius High School, both in Cleveland, diagnosed with a narrowing of the spinal column

No matter what has happened in their lives, Cathy Nemeh says, her husband has never questioned God. "He has this tremendous faith," she says. "If it is good, bad or indifferent, he will say, •This is what God wants. This is what I have to accept.' "

And there have been trials along the way.

A recent Plain Dealer article, compiled through a search of public records, raised questions about the doctor's medical training, career and an IRS lien on the couple's home for $18,207 in unpaid income taxes. It also detailed several lawsuits filed by the couple, including one in 1987 against the former owners of their Bay Village ranch home, which claimed the sellers "hid water damage and other problems," and a 1992 suit against a Lorain Avenue Pick N Pay after Cathy, who was nine-months pregnant at the time, fell in the store.

"I was on bed rest right after that [fall]," she tells Cleveland Magazine now. "I had to have surgery on my hands because of that." The $200,000 suit was settled for an undisclosed amount.

The couple's Fairview Park accountant, Jim Thomas, describes the lien as "a comedy of errors" that resulted in an $11,000 overpayment of payroll taxes and $12,000 underpayment of personal income taxes by a previous accountant. The debt, he adds, has since been settled.

Dr. Nemeh began a five-year general-surgery residency at Fairview Hospital in 1985. His time there ended three years later when a committee in charge of the program voted not to renew his contract due to poor performance, according to The Plain Dealer.

Cathy says her husband's residency was cut short not by lack of ability but by the program director's bias against Syrians. Nemeh responded by filing a $31 million discrimination lawsuit against the hospital in federal court. The director denied the bias charge and the claim was settled for less than $20,000, according to The Plain Dealer.

After he left Fairview, Nemeh completed a three-year residency in anesthesiology at Huron Hospital in 1991, during which he was honored as House Officer of the Year and Outstanding Resident in Anesthesiology, according to the Nemehs. Dr. Khaled Chaouki, director of cardiac anesthesia at Hillcrest Hospital who then served both as Huron's associate director of anesthesiology and the department's head of education, says Nemeh was "a very pleasant person" who was well-liked by patients and "did a good job in every aspect."

He was hired fresh out of his residency by Richmond Heights General Hospital as chief of anesthesiology (hospital officials could not confirm his position) but left after four months because "he didn't agree with the patient care," Cathy says. (According to the American Board of Anesthesiology, Nemeh was never board certified in the specialty.)

After that, Nemeh completed a five-day training session in meridian regulatory acupuncture, a practice that uses a non-FDA-approved device to provide electrical stimulation through an attached needle.

The interest wasn't anything new. Nemeh says he had experimented on himself with traditional acupuncture for years. "I stuck myself about a couple hundred million times," he says with a chuckle.

But while he was in training, Cathy recalls, Nemeh called to say, "God just sent me the tool that I need to serve him."

"I knew what kind of potential there was, what kind of problems we could solve," Nemeh says of his switch to the acupuncture technique. "Things were practiced in medicine that I knew could be done in a different way, without being aggressive."

Nemeh began practicing acupuncture at Southwest General Health Center in Middleburg Heights as an independent contractor in the facility's Complementary Care Program, an alternative-medicine offering that opened in 1995.

When the Complementary Care Program ended in 1999, Dr. Nemeh started his own practice on West 117th Street, then moved to Rocky River shortly thereafter.

"Right after he started [at Southwest General], I started getting letters [at the house] saying, •Thank you for the miracle I had' or •Thank you for the healing' or •Thank you. I've canceled my surgery,' " Cathy says.

Nemeh says his success at Southwest General was merely a continuation of what had been happening for years, including at the hospitals where he'd studied and worked.

"I was praying with my patients and witnessing [the results] firsthand," he says. "People were sometimes very, very sick and right away getting better."

There were colleagues who noticed the improvement in those patients, who asked about their progress. "I always voiced my faith, always. But I never shared that part, the healing [that was] happening."

Both Dr. Robert J. White, professor of neurosurgery at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, and Dr. Matt Likavec, director of the division of neurological surgery at MetroHealth Medical Center, admit they've prayed with and for patients. But it doesn't mean they believe in Nemeh's work.

"So many of us in the professional area are rather critical of this particular situation because, rightly or wrongly, we don't have a lot of faith in it," says White. "There's a great deal of testimony, not scientific, that people have come [to Dr. Nemeh] with very painful conditions, other types of pain that are chronic, and people have felt better. But I do not see the scientific evidence here."

Likavec says people may be too quick to attribute their improved condition to faith rather than medical science. After spinal surgery to repair damage suffered during an accident, for instance, one of his patients regained the ability to walk, but credited the recovery to an encounter with Nemeh.

"I have any number of people who are not Christian, who don't even believe in God, who have had similar kinds of injuries, who have had the same kind of results," Likavec says.

"It's hard to accept things that we cannot touch and we cannot measure repeatedly," Nemeh says of medical professionals who are skeptical of his claims.

In fact, he advises his patients to start or continue mainstream medical treatment while seeing him. And he candidly admits that not everyone who walks into his office or healing services is returned to health, even after several visits.

"The success rate with what I am doing is so beyond our knowledge for today," he asserts. "But you have a lot of lives that actually depend on the kind of practice that we have in medicine right now. We have beautiful science that has been applied for so many years. I cannot separate God from science."

Indeed, he believes there are scientific explanations man has yet to discover for the occurrences currently described as miracles.

"There is something that has translated itself down to our physical level and caused a change," he emphasizes. "We are refusing to look into what goes on when those things happen. And that's a real subject of research for the future."

At 68, my mom had severe diverticulitis, a chronic inflammatory disease of the bowel, with just horrendous vomiting and diarrhea, abdominal pain. The doctors at The Cleveland Clinic recommended surgery to remove 12 inches of her bowel and a possible colostomy to treat it.

She also had this weird bruising disorder: What would be a regular blue, 2-inch bruise on most people would be a 6- or 8-inch black patch on her that would last for three months. Specialists throughout Chicago, where she lived, and at the Mayo Clinic had no explanation except that she was fair-skinned, very thin-skinned or getting older.

In addition, she'd had blinding migraines since she was a kid, the kind where her speech would get blurred and she'd get nauseous.

"We saw Dr. Nemeh one night, and he said, •I'd like to see you again before you go home.' So we came in the next day. He said, •If you can come in one more time, I really think we can take care of all of this.'

"My mom has not had a migraine in three years. She doesn't bruise — if she does, it's a little blue spot like we get. And when the doctors went back and did another scan of her abdomen, the 12-inch necrotic area [of her intestine] was totally clear and open."

— Fiona Hudec, 41, a registered nurse who was treated by Nemeh for a herniated disk, degenerative disk disease and nerve damage resulting from jaw surgery and now volunteers at his healing services

"Hey, lukewarm!"

It's Trapper Jack on the phone.

When I first asked how the Nemehs felt about arranging a second interview, Trapper Jack replied, "Lukewarm. Just like you are about your foot." The adjective has apparently become my new nickname.

During each of our previous conversations, Trapper Jack has casually asked about my foot, and I've always told him the same thing: I've been working a lot and haven't been out of a chair long enough to test its progress.

I assume it won't surprise anyone if I still experience pain. Nemeh, after all, had stated during our session that not all of his patients recover, even after multiple office visits.

But, the disc jockey tells me there are concerns in the Nemeh camp that I'm "not the right person" to write this story because I won't admit to being completely healed at Nemeh's hands. "You need to be honest with yourself," Trapper Jack says.

I was well on my way to recovery before I ever stepped into Dr. Nemeh's office, I offer. But Trapper Jack won't hear any of it. "Did your foot hurt before? Was your foot better afterward?" he repeatedly interrupts. "Was your foot better afterward?"

In the end, the disc jockey asks if I can attend a healing service June 12 at St. Basil the Great Catholic Church in Brecksville.

"Show up," he says, "and we'll go from there."

The healing services began in 2000 when Nemeh asked Rev. Robert Welsh to celebrate a Mass of Thanksgiving for one of his patients, a nun who had been successfully treated for cancer. It was held at the Brothers of the Holy Spirit, a basement chapel in the Brooklyn home of two brothers who invite ordained priests to celebrate Masses there.

"A ton of people showed up," Cathy says. The same thing happened at a subsequent service staged at the Monastery of Poor Clares in Cleveland.

In May 2001, Welsh suggested Nemeh move the services to St. Mary of the Assumption Chapel at St. Ignatius High School in Cleveland, which can accommodate approximately 400 worshippers. Other parishes began requesting to host services the next year. Public response to the NewsChannel 5 series forced events out of the little chapel into larger churches, both Catholic and Protestant, throughout Northeast Ohio. On April 3, a 17-hour service at Cleveland State University's Wolstein Center drew more than 6,000 people, Trapper Jack says.

The free services, originally scheduled once a month, are now twice a month and continue until as late as 4 a.m. They are led by Nemeh, Welsh and Sister Monica Marie Navin of the Sisters of the Incarnate Word in Parma Heights, a woman known for having a gift of healing shared during services conducted at the order's chapel. Cathy, whom her husband says also has a gift for healing, is a member of the team, too, as well as assorted volunteers and members of the clergy.

Bishop Anthony M. Pilla of the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland, who attended a service in February at St. Ignatius High School, indicates support of the events in a statement issued to the media. He says the services are conducted "in the context of a very legitimate spirituality" and the members of the core healing team "are just doing this as part of their faith commitment and their belief that God can heal."

By the next morning, any concerns harbored by the Nemeh camp about my foot seem to have disappeared. Trapper Jack gives me a hug when I stop by his post near the lectern to introduce the Cleveland Magazine photographer. Cathy clasps my arm and invites us to eat dinner with the healing team during a scheduled break early that evening.

Thanks to timed tickets handed out by Nemeh's office and the parish, there are no crowds milling about outside, no long lines at the main entrance. The atmosphere inside the contemporary brick-walled sanctuary is respectful but casual. People enter and exit at will or walk the aisles with their babies. One man even arrives carrying a submarine sandwich in a plastic bag.

There are folks of all ages in wheelchairs, an elderly man sitting next to an oxygen tank, a little boy with a pronounced curvature of the spine lurching down the aisle while holding his father's hand. Others, however, bear no outward sign of their affliction.

They sit quietly, waiting for a volunteer to direct them to an aisle in front of the communion rail, where Nemeh and his healing team minister through testimonials introduced by Trapper Jack interspersed with piano and harp music.

The doctor, dressed in black pants and shirt, is difficult to pick out in the crowd. He could easily be mistaken for just another member of the healing team or one of the friends and relatives that accompany the afflicted.

As we venture closer, we can see him, eyes closed, head tilted back slightly, hands clasping the bowed head of an older woman. Some people leave teary eyed, too emotional to talk about the experience. And occasionally someone is "slain in the Spirit" while the doctor and his team are praying over them. Volunteers and team members catch each person as they collapse and gently lay them on the crimson-carpeted floor.

Ann Garling, a 45-year-old Cleveland native stretched out in a zero-gravity chair — an aluminum-framed contraption resembling a lawn chaise that helps correct a slowed circulation of blood caused by a brain dysfunction — attempts to explain the phenomenon after "going down."

"I just felt this incredible sense of peace and happiness and wholeness and wellness," she says. "I feel like I just went to heaven and I don't want to come home."

At the 6 p.m. break, I walk across the church driveway with the rest of the healing team to the parish office, where a buffet of prime rib, salmon, vegetarian lasagna and various salads, all prepared by Cathy, has been laid out. There are also three birthday cakes: one for a volunteer, one for Sister Monica, and one for the Nemeh's 21-year-old daughter, Fadia, who spent the afternoon standing in the aisles, directing foot traffic.

Nemeh is one of the last to fill his plate. He sits down at the end of a table next to his wife and, when he sees us, smiles and nods his head in acknowledgement. Ted Henry and Trapper Jack stand in the corner, engrossed in conversation.

There is some talk of the Plain Dealer story, which appeared on the front page of the day's paper. But nobody seems too concerned about the coverage. When I ask Cathy who sent the arrangement of pink roses delivered to her during dinner, she jokingly replies, "Harlan Spector" — the reporter who wrote the piece — with a wink and a smile.

The evening quickly becomes a Nemeh family affair. Daughter Debbie, 15, helps her older sister slice and serve her large chocolate birthday cake. And when we arrive back at the church, Ashley, 17, is standing next to the piano, singing "Amazing Grace" while her brother, Wadi, 12, watches from the aisle. Nemeh calls the time spent away from his children "part of the offering of yourself."

A volunteer tells us the service is 2 1/2 hours behind schedule when we leave at 8:30 p.m. One might expect the demands of his calling, both physical and emotional, to have some effect on Nemeh. But he doesn't appear any wearier than he did when the service started at noon. While I was in his office, he had described the joy of watching "people who are so disabled, in front of your eyes coming back to a normal life," that keeps him going. "I am the happiest physician on this earth because of what I have witnessed."

"I had a frozen shoulder that started giving me trouble in April or May of last year. It was very difficult to move. It got to the point that I couldn't even lift my arm over my head. I went to the doctor — I went to a specialist — and he gave me a shot of cortisone and sent me to physical therapy. I was going weekly, maybe even sometimes twice a week. Each week, it was a little tiny bit better, but it was still far from perfect. I could not lift the right arm properly, couldn't rotate it, couldn't get it up.

"Our church had a healing service. My wife was recovering from a fractured hip — she was in a wheelchair — and she wanted to go. Many years ago, my wife took our daughter to Sister Monica. She was married and unable to get pregnant. The next thing you know, she's pregnant and has a baby!

"After the healing service, the next morning when I woke up, my shoulder was enormously better. It was probably going up 5 percent [in improvement] a week. All of a sudden, it went almost to 100 percent."

— Dr. Ted Castele, 77, chairman of the Dean's Advisory Council at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, former WEWS-TV 5 medical editor and retired radiologist

Nemeh stands in the reception area of his office on a Friday afternoon, waiting to take communion from Thomas Kemer, a West Side Eucharistic minister who comes in every day just for this.

The doctor then walks into his secretary's office, sits down at the table, and reaches for the box of bagels.

He does not ask about my foot, which after a few months of rest, is now out of a boot cast and in a fashionable heel. Nor does he raise any of the concerns voiced by Trapper Jack during our phone conversations.

Instead, he is infinitely more interested in the zero-gravity chair I mention seeing at the St. Basil service. As the conversation turns toward my questions, Cathy gently warns her husband, "Now she's using this for the article, just so you know."

"If she wants to hurt me, she's welcome," he replies calmly. "Everybody's welcome to hurt me. I don't care."

In fact, he says he expected the Plain Dealer article.

"I have no doubt whatsoever that they are a bunch of evil people, aiming at something that is so precious," he says heatedly, ignoring his wife's pleas in a foreign language. "They know I have been in here for more than 10 years, doing what I am doing. So many people getting healed, over and over, in the office, in the church! To go around and pick up things to destroy something that they cannot destroy otherwise tells me so much about those people! Do they have any love for the society that they live in? Are they really serving this country? Or are they serving some other country? They don't belong in here, to this society!"

And then Nemeh is calm and quiet again, sitting, eating his bagel in a room that has been silenced by his unexpected outburst. I manage to ask what he thinks the future holds for him.

"For the time being, I am doing what I am doing," he finally answers. "Then I will move on to something different — something that will serve more."

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