The massive heart attack Linda Lucarelli suffered in November caused a severe loss of oxygen to her brain. Now in a vegetative state, she looks like Sleeping Beauty -- her long hair rests peacefully on a pillow, her blue eyes are partly closed, her wheelchair-borne body is wrapped tightly in a blanket.
Linda is seated on the floor of the Wolstein Center at Cleveland State, where 6,000 ailing believers have filed in on an April Sunday to feel the touch of Dr. Issam Nemeh.
In the aisles above, ushers escort the frail to their seats, the VIP sections reserved for the sickest of them. The arena has been rendered a makeshift cathedral, with holy oil splashed upon the congregants and incense wafting to the rafters. At the microphone, 17-year-old Ashley Nemeh sings "Ave Maria," as Father Robert Welsh readies himself for the mass. The crowd lip-synchs along to the psalms, each person waiting hungrily for his first glimpse of Nemeh.
Slowly he emerges, striding purposefully toward the center of the floor, straight to the wheelchair where Linda sits. He stops, and his face hovers above hers; then he begins to stroke her cheek. He stares into her eyes and mumbles words of prayer, his lips vibrating like an idling Harley. His eyes start to glaze over and his forehead scrunches up. His wife, Cathy, turns Linda's face toward the towering wooden cross at center court.
Her family later swears that heat has flowed from his hands, that shivers raced down the backs of all those around Linda.
The command goes out for all to pray for her. Some do so hard that their faces redden, their bodies contort, their fists shake. But their thoughts, eventually, also drift back inward. A mother turns to her son, who is strapped like a parachute jumper to his wheelchair. A man squeezes the hand of his wife, recently diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
When is it our turn?
Later, Nemeh will walk through the stands and pray over everyone. Some, overcome with emotion, will fall down, weeping. Nemeh never blinks, never tires of their reactions. He's known since he was young that thousands would be healed by his hand. Only the moment of his emergence remained unknown.
"It is now time," says Trapper Jack, the famed radio host and unlikely spokesman for Nemeh's ministry.
So spake the lite-rock DJ, so shall it be.
One morning on a vacation in Mexico, Issam Nemeh goes for an ocean swim. He emerges minutes later, without his glasses. They have fallen into the deepest, blackest water.
"Forget about them," his wife says. "We'll buy you a new pair this afternoon." But instead, the doctor borrows her goggles and wades back in. His wife and children laugh at his foolishness -- "You'll never find them," they say, as Nemeh dives deeper.
The first time down, he finds nothing. The second time, he emerges with glasses in hand, waving them victoriously in the air.
"What happened?" his wife asks him incredulously.
"I just kept swimming until the light grew brighter."
Issam Nemeh's healing powers were made known to the world by Ted Henry. The pasty-faced, eternal anchor of NewsNet 5 presented an 11-part series during sweeps week in late February, the time when networks hike up the drama in order to boost ratings.
Henry gushingly informed viewers that over the last five years, Nemeh, a Bay Village anesthesiologist-turned-acupuncturist, had prayed over the sick at masses held at St. Ignatius High School and area churches. He cured a man of testicular cancer, helped a paraplegic to walk again, and caused the ruptured disc of another to suddenly fuse. Nemeh, Henry revealed, received his powers from Jesus.
The doctor became an instant media sensation. Following coverage by The Plain Dealer, the Associated Press and MSNBC picked up on his story.
In Florida, Terri Schiavo's parents asked Nemeh to come down to Pinellas Park and pray over their daughter. Nemeh politely rejected the offer -- he didn't want to be part of that whole "media circus," Trapper Jack says unironically. (Trapper later amends the statement, saying that the doctor simply did not have time to go.)
ABC News' Peter Jennings, who was diagnosed with lung cancer in April, expressed interest in doing a feature on the doctor.
Suddenly, Nemeh no longer toiled under the radar. After Henry's series, 10,000 ailing people and their families were drawn to the doctor's next mass at SS. Peter and Paul Catholic Church in Garfield Heights -- 7,000 of them turned away due to lack of room. Nemeh appeased them with an additional mass at St. Bernadette Church in Westlake the next night, and thousands returned the following Saturday. The doctor's next service was held at the Wolstein Center; Sam Lucarelli, Linda's husband and the owner of Minute Men Staffing Services in Cleveland, wrote a check for $18,000 to cover the building rental. Nemeh had prayed over Linda several times before, and Sam wanted others to feel his touch.
"We hoped God could heal Linda, and if not, we thought at least someone else might get lucky," Lucarelli says.
Six thousand people filed in for the 11 a.m. service. Nemeh finally departed well after midnight, and only after building officials asked him to leave. The circus needed to begin setting up, he was told.
But for all the fanfare, there also remains no shortage of mystery surrounding the short, paunchy, 51-year-old native of Syria, who dresses like a kindergartner in scratchy oversized sweaters and displays the facial expressions of an owl. For a guy who supposedly knew that thousands would come to him one day, he sure doesn't like talking about himself.
Nemeh has permitted friends and family to speak to reporters on his behalf, though they seldom choose to do so. In a Plain Dealer article, reporter Harlan Spector wrote that when he asked to speak to the doctor, his wife responded, "Do you believe in miracles?" (Spector wasn't granted the interview.) Cathy Nemeh refused to speak to another PD reporter because he had "an ugly soul," according to Vivian Costanza, one of the doctor's longtime assistants. Costanza hung up on another reporter whose "dark side," she believed, "was very visible."
Scene had better luck. Costanza was more than happy to speak. Why?
"I asked the doctor, 'Is [this reporter] safe?' and he said yes," she explained.
A few days later, Trapper Jack called. "Can you meet at Nate's Deli at 11:15?"
"The doctor held my back, he had his arms out around me, and he blessed my forehead, but didn't speak to me at all. I heard what he was saying, but I only understood small parts. He used the Lord's name, things of that nature. Afterwards, I felt a big relief, like something big had happened to me. I don't know, it's really hard to describe. All I know was that I felt this great peace."
-- Ron Jablonski, Seven Hills
The voice of light-rock WDOK-FM 102.1 since 1995, Trapper Jack is the type of guy you'd feel comfortable talking to about girls, sex, or maybe jock itch. He's smart, funny, and hip, in a cool, older-brother kind of way. He's also legally blind.
Five years ago, the nanny to Trapper's children convinced him to visit Nemeh, whom she'd heard about from a nurse at the Cleveland Clinic. "I just wanted to see the show," remembers Trapper, whose real name is Philip Keller.
For the first few visits, he acted like a six-year-old forced by his parents to attend the ballet. "Issam wanted to kick me out. I treated it as a joke," says Trapper, a lapsed Catholic at the time.
Nemeh later told him that God intervened at that moment. Someday, Trapper Jack will be the voice of your ministry, the Lord said.
"When the doctor first told me, 'You'll be the voice of the ministry,' I looked at him like he had two heads," says Trapper. He kept going anyway. The two forged a spiritual and emotional bond. Trapper is now the doctor's closest friend.
Early one December morning in 2004, Trapper awoke to illuminated surroundings. "I thought, there's got to be a light on in the room, but there wasn't. And for a moment, I could see everything. It lasted for about 25 seconds." Trapper pauses for a beat.
"This is the most important thing in my life," he says. "I know what my purpose in life is.
"I've had two lives -- the one before, and the other: this."
He still doesn't know why God chose him.
"I'm an old woman. I've been suffering from back pain for many, many years. I've had two crushed vertebrae and a tilted spine. But when the doctor first put his hands on my back, I swear my bones started moving. All my pain immediately disappeared. I knew when he touched me that God had touched me . . . and when he brushed my knee, I wasn't sure if he was angel or flesh or blood. I looked up at his face and he just sort of laughed. He said, 'You get it.'"
-- Vivian Costanza
Cathy Nemeh is a slim, petite woman with almond-shaped eyes and a thick curtain of dark hair that she pushes behind her ears. She arrives at Nate's Deli, an intimate Middle Eastern restaurant with big menus and small tables, flanked by an entourage, which does not include her husband. On one side is Trapper Jack; on the other are two well-dressed women whom Trapper identifies as Dr. Nemeh's supporters. They are much more like Hollywood publicists.
At the table, Cathy shrugs out of a stiff black leather jacket and pushes away offers of menus -- the Nemehs are regulars here.
"Write a good story," she says after smearing on bright red lipstick. "I'm well connected. I know lots of people in this town." Cathy smiles.
"Kidding!" she says, the exclamation coming a moment too late.
Next to her sits Mary Kay DeLong, a skinny brunette with a tiny ski-lift nose and a gym-trim body. Two years ago, DeLong's father endured a life-threatening medical struggle; his family attributes his survival to Nemeh's healing touch. DeLong and her family have since become devout Catholics and very close with the Nemehs. She informs the reporter that she is a "Cathy protector."
Throughout the meal, DeLong offers constant helpful reminders to "put your pen down," "stop writing that," and "leave that part of the story out." Later, she will ask whether it's really necessary to publish any personal details of the doctor's life.
Trapper, at one point, mercifully intervenes, putting his hand on DeLong's arm. "Mary Kay," he says, "the reporter needs to have some sort of story."
Cathy spends much of the interview with a cell phone pressed to her ear -- talking first to Ted Henry, who has just returned from attending the new pope's inauguration in Rome, then to a caller who tells her the story about a firefighter who was cured of cancer after attending a healing session. Then to her husband.
Cathy refuses to be quoted directly -- she is a private person, she says, and she and Issam do not want to appear to be taking credit for the work of Jesus. She is, however, working on a book about her life with the doctor.
Between bites of hummus, the other two women put into words the devotion they feel to Nemeh and his ministry.
"It's seductive," says accountant Shannon Cain, who works in the same office building as Nemeh. In 2002, the doctor, she says, cured her of a bladder infection that no one else knew she had and told her she was pregnant with a fifth child before she knew it herself. Since then, she's spent her spare time helping out. "It's an attraction," she says.
DeLong elaborates: "At some point, the doctor just grabs you, and you don't ever want to let go. You feel lucky -- lucky -- that he lets you in. And after all he's given, you just want to keep giving back."
"They call ovarian cancer the cancer that whispers," says Bernadette McClaine, diagnosed six years ago with an advanced form. "You don't really have any symptoms until the cancer has already advanced." She was shopping for wigs when a friend told her about Issam Nemeh. McClaine immediately made an appointment.
The first time she went, she felt a "warmth through my body all the way to my feet. I felt very, very much at peace." She continued seeing him throughout her chemotherapy treatment. Today, she remains in remission.
"But do you really believe that Dr. Nemeh helped heal you?" she is asked.
McClaine pauses before answering. "Have you ever heard the story of Saint Bernadette? When Bernadette was a very young girl, the Blessed Mother appeared before her many times. One time, the Blessed Mother pointed out a spring of bubbling water and told Bernadette to take a sip from it. She did. Afterwards, the Blessed Mother told Bernadette that for years after, people will come to this spring, bathe themselves, and be healed. When Bernadette told people of this, they laughed. But Bernadette ignored the skeptics: 'For those who believe,' she said, 'no explanation is necessary. For those who do not believe, no explanation will ever be sufficient.'"
As a young boy growing up in Syria, Issam knew he was special. He would pray over the sick and watch, unsurprised, as they got better. He grew more religious than the rest of his family, and started attending daily church services.
He pursued a career in medicine, graduating from a Polish medical school in 1980. He settled in Cleveland two years later at the suggestion of a cousin who worked at the Cleveland Clinic.
Trapper Jack, however, believes there was a greater purpose.
"Bottom line: They had to get together," he says of Cathy and Issam. "They had to meet."
Cathy grew up in a Catholic family in West Park. When she was in her mid-20s, she was traveling in Syria when she received an urgent call from her mother. "I just met your future husband!" she said.
"Find someone else for him to marry," was Cathy's reply. "I'm going to law school."
In September of that year, Cathy and Issam met. "God took over from there," Trapper says. They were married in less than a year and in time had four children (now between the ages of 12 and 20).
As an anesthesiologist at Richmond Heights Hospital, Nemeh's quiet demeanor and expertise earned him the nickname the Miracle Man, the doctor with the "hands of gold," says Cathy.
Then, one day in 1995, God told Nemeh that he could better serve Him as an acupuncturist. It would allow the doctor to work on a "one-to-one basis to assist God in his healings," says Trapper Jack. Nemeh immediately dropped anesthesiology and started working as an acupuncturist at Southwest General Hospital in Middleburg Heights. He opened up his first solo acupuncture clinic in Lakewood in 1999. He did not advertise -- God, he believed, would bring people to him. And people arrived, in droves.
Cathy learned of Issam's gift only when the cards of thanks started pouring in from hundreds of people claiming they'd been miraculously healed by his hands. It was then he confided in her -- that Jesus was using him to cure the sick. He told her too about his dreams. That one day thousands would come to him for healing.
Uh-huh, she thought.
But Issam never considered his business to be healing people, she maintains. He's in the business of saving souls. His goal, he would tell her, was to bring people back to Christ. This, they say, is why he does not seek donations at mass, why he never praises his own virtue. He knows what happened to Moses when he pretended that he -- not God -- could turn a rock into water.
In his practice, Nemeh uses a machine that relies on electromagnetic waves to locate and measure pain. And he prays -- always prays. Patients are instructed to tell him when the pain becomes unbearable. Each visit costs $250.
He has never kept normal hours. He works from early morning till late into the night, routinely phoning patients to ask whether they could be available in a half-hour. Some sessions last hours, others only minutes. Some patients need to see him only once, others return several times. His children sometimes stop by his Rocky River office just to see him.
But living with a gifted man is hard on Cathy, friends say. When they go to the mall, she has to pull him away from people in wheelchairs -- Honey, we're supposed to be shopping today. She has also learned to expect the sudden appearance of homeless men at her kitchen table -- Issam's occasional guests, plucked off the streets. As his popularity grew, Cathy's life began to revolve around the scheduling of his. Others around them believe that she too has healing powers, though her time has not yet come.
"The Holy Spirit works differently with Cathy than He does with the doctor," Trapper Jack explains. "[Issam's] time is right now."
Nemeh's ministry grew beyond the walls of his office when a patient introduced him to Father Robert Welsh, then president of St. Ignatius High School. For years, Welsh had suffered excruciating back pain. Nemeh placed a hand on Welsh's back, whispered words of prayer, and suddenly the pain disappeared. Soon, Welsh was a believer and a friend.
At around the same time, Nemeh was introduced to Sister Monica Marie Navin, of the Sisters of the Incarnate Word in Parma Heights. Sister Monica, many believed, had special healing powers of her own. Congregants claim that five years ago, she developed a large tumor on her neck and that Nemeh prayed over her; subsequently, the tumor disappeared. Trapper Jack will say only that while seeing Dr. Nemeh, she also continued cancer treatments at the Cleveland Clinic.
Soon, the three were working together, holding mass at St. Ignatius, with Father Welsh and Sister Monica leading the services and Nemeh providing the healings. (Father Welsh and Sister Monica declined comment for this story.)
In February, Bishop Anthony Pilla attended a session at St. Ignatius and later announced his support of the doctor's work in a written statement: "They are not looking for any sensationalism, they are not looking for any personal praise or reward or adulation . . . They are just doing this as part of their faith commitment and their belief that God can heal." The Diocese of Cleveland has declined further comment.
Non-Catholics, too, are finding strength through Nemeh -- everyone from Buddhists to New Agers. A recent service was held at St. Barnabas, an Episcopalian church in Bay Village.
"When I met Dr. Nemeh, I asked him, 'In whose name do you heal?' and he told me he healed in the name of Jesus, says Reverend James Tasker of St. Barnabas. "Theologically, at least on that point, we're equal."
"The doctor, you know, was supposed to go to Rome to pray over the pope. He told me that the Vatican called him and he was all set to go to Rome when all of a sudden, they called again and said they didn't need him anymore.
"I asked him, I said, 'Why don't you go anyway?' And the doctor said, 'They have to ask me to come. I can't go unless I am asked."
-- Mary Barringer, friend and devotee of Issam Nemeh's
Three years ago, Trapper Jack believed it was time for the doctor's tale "to pop," as he puts it. He was not the only one.
As news of Nemeh spread around the Catholic community, reporters from The Plain Dealer, CNN, Oprah, and ABC News called the Nemehs requesting interviews. But either messages were not returned or reporters were told that Nemeh was not interested, says Trapper Jack.
"God had other ideas," he says, explaining that the current media blitz "was not allowed to happen until everything was in place."
Things started coming together last year. The doctor told his family that it was finally time for the ministry to be unveiled. The only question: What lucky reporter would get to deliver the message to the world?
The answer came via the radio.
Trapper Jack was at WDOK one morning in December when he heard an on-air promotion for a series that Ted Henry, the NewsNet 5 anchor, was doing about a spiritual healer in India. Trapper shook his head.
"Ted, you don't know what's under your nose," he thought.
It got Trapper thinking: "Who's more trusted in Cleveland than Ted Henry?"
Trapper also knew that Channel 5's former medical reporter, Dr. Ted Castele, who suffered from shoulder pain, had recently attended one of the doctor's healing masses at Saint Angela's. After Nemeh prayed over him, Castele said that his shoulder felt "95 percent better." He'd been a Nemeh supporter ever since.
The timing could not be a coincidence.
With Nemeh's approval, Trapper called Henry, who knew a good story when he heard one. Three or four years ago, in fact, the anchor had approached the doctor about an interview, but had been told that the time wasn't right, says Trapper. (Henry did not respond to repeated interview requests.)
In February, Henry gave the world its first glimpse of Nemeh. After the series aired, thousands started calling Nemeh's Rocky River office. Whereas longtime patients could once call and speak to a secretary -- if not to Nemeh himself -- now there is little hope of speaking to an actual person. Secretaries return calls to ask, "How sick are you? Because we have someone with cancer who needs to the see the doctor now." Nemeh's office is scheduling appointments for February 2006.
Linda Lucarelli remains in a vegetative state. Five of the nation's best neurosurgeons have told her husband that there is nothing more they can do for her.
But Dr. Nemeh has told Sam that he "feels a real connection with her."
"I want to believe in the doctor's faith healing. My sister believes it . . . I'll go along with it. We need a miracle at this point.
"The other day there were six or seven people in my wife's nursing room. The nun came over to say a prayer. My wife was facing the left wall, the nun was on her right, and when the nun said the Hail Mary, Linda looked like she raised her head a little bit. She moved it four or five inches, I think."
After three hours at Nate's Deli, Cathy promises to arrange a visit to the doctor's office. By the next day, she is no longer returning calls.
Trapper Jack, when reached by phone, barks, "Now is not the time for a meeting! There is much more about the doctor to be revealed . . . when the time is right." Further voice messages garner no response.
A few days later, a Scene reporter pays an unannounced visit to Nemeh's office, on the fourth floor of a building nestled between an Arby's and a fitness center.
In the waiting room, Nemeh enters from a side door. He says hello in passing, but does not pause as the reporter stretches out a hand to stop him. He is there, and then he is gone. And then the secretary asks us kindly to leave.
Joe P. Tone contributed reporting to this story.
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