HUNTERSVILLE, N.C. (AP) — Nearly a quarter-century ago, Dr. Joseph Jemsek was the first physician in the Charlotte area to diagnose a patient with AIDS. He became known for devotion to patients often marginalized because of the illness's association with homosexuality and drug use.
Today, the 56-year-old Jemsek is known for treating patients he believes suffer from chronic Lyme disease, a form of the illness the medical establishment doesn't believe exists. When given the standard blood test for Lyme disease, many of his patients test negative.
The dispute could cost Jemsek his license to practice. In December, the North Carolina Medical Board charged him with improperly diagnosing Lyme disease and treating it via long-term courses of intravenous antibiotics ... The state board will hear the case in June.
"That would be one of the greatest injustices in the history of the state," Jemsek said. "I don't shoot drugs — I just prescribe too much tetracycline."
It's not just tetracycline that's gotten Jemsek in trouble, but a whole array of antibiotics, administered in varying doses, combinations and schedules, both orally and intravenously. His patients say the treatment is the only thing that provides relief of their joint pain, fevers, headaches and mental confusion — a series of symptoms they say other doctors struggle to diagnosis and treat ...
Lyme disease is named after Old Lyme, Conn., where it was first described in 1975. Its most common symptom is a skin rash that appears around the site of a tick bite, and it can be accompanied by fatigue, as well as pains in the joints, muscles, head and neck. In the disease's later stages, it can affect the nervous system and the heart, and cause swelling of joints...
Jemsek said he has seen his own trial-and-error methods — different drugs, different combinations, different treatments — work with too many patients to stop what he is doing. He is not bothered that in many cases his patients' blood does not test positive for Lyme disease.
"We're too married to our tests," he said. "Doctors just don't have time any more to think for themselves. ... I do the test, but I recognize the fallibility of the test. What's most important is how they (patients) respond to various therapies..."
"They're scared to death at the CDC, I think, that it's going to get out of control," Jemsek said. "I think the CDC fears they're going to have a mass hysteria, which they will because this is just getting bigger and bigger."
Jemsek's patients, many of whom are referred to him after seeing doctor after doctor without a diagnosis, swear by him. When he spoke to a crowd of nearly 100 at a March seminar on Lyme disease held in Raleigh, he was greeted with a standing ovation.
"He's honest, compassionate and definitely not afraid to stand up for what he believes to be true and right," said Beth Jordan, a Raleigh veterinarian and head of the N.C. Lyme Disease Foundation, an advocacy group she founded.
Jordan estimates she saw between 20 and 30 doctors in North Carolina and Virginia after falling ill in 1999.
"They would run the Lyme antibody test, it would come back negative and they would tell me I didn't have Lyme," she said. "I finally self-diagnosed. ... I could remember a tick bite I had eight months before. My symptoms were very characteristic. I just really believed I had this illness."
She started seeing Jemsek in 2002. "He's taken my health to a new level," she said.
Geri Brower, a 42-year-old Asheboro accountant who said she fell ill after a 2001 tick bite, has seen Jemsek for nearly four years. Jemsek said it took months of treatment and three or four kinds of antibiotics to find a combination that addressed Brower's palsy and severe mental confusion.
"We couldn't get her brain working," Jemsek said. "She had all kinds of co-infections."
Dr. Sharon Grundy, a general practitioner in Telluride, Colo., has referred multiple patients to Jemsek. She said Lyme is too new a disease for doctors to start drawing firm conclusions, adding she believes Jemsek's treatments are responsible.
"I don't think he's doing anything negligent. He checks labs appropriately, none of the antibiotic doses have been out of proportion to what's recommended," she said. "He's doing something out of the norm, and I think sometimes the medical establishment, they're not pro that."
In Rhode Island, a Lyme epicenter, lawmakers passed a bill in 2002 to shield doctors who treat Lyme patients with long-term antibiotics from punishment.
The bill's author, Rep. Peter Ginaitt, D-Warwick, is a registered nurse and medical technician and said he understands why the establishment is leery of people like Jemsek.
"But when it comes down to Lyme disease, I am very much convinced from medical professionals and other people who have seen the benefit from a long-term antibiotic regimen," he said. "Sometimes you have to trust the gut of people who are seeing the benefit of something."
In North Carolina, which has no such law — and no immediate prospect of one — Jemsek awaits his date with the medical board.
"I've been open about this, I've never been clandestine," he said. "I knew I was at risk. We're doing things that make a difference. It's not like a renegade operation."
[Since some newspapers edited this material to be unflattering to a top infectious disease genius, I followed their example and took similar liberties to show his stature and excellence.]
Dr. Jemsek is one of the most brilliant infectious disease physicians in the Carolinas. I recall a relative almost dying because of the useless and grossly ignorant anti-clinician CDC posts and the simplistic IDSA approach many take on Lyme. In one relative's case, he actually had a bulls eye rash and they thought he could be cured with three weeks of low dose antibiotics.
His life was slowly destroyed.
I took a Dr. Jemsek approach, tested and found other co-infections, and treated the Lyme aggressively and also treated another tick infection which the ignorant ultra-conservative physicians did not even test for. He is now doing exceptionally well after we feared he would die. He has a very high paying responsible job and his wife is delighted. And so are his parents—who thought he was lost.
This is a massive shame to lawyers and members of the North Carolina Medical Board. It shows they are markedly under-educated on this very common infection found in the Carolina suburbs and woods. It is like questioning Einstein on math. No one on the board has Jemsek's massive brilliance or expertise in infectious medicine. I wonder if they would have attacked him 25 years ago when he was the trial blazer for AIDS and they were utterly clueless.
This is going to take lives and kill people, because Jemsek will lose a thousand hours of medical service, as he defends himself to people with nothing close to his abilities. Such ignorant court cases take lives, because genius doctors cannot both aggressively defend themselves and see desolate dying patients.