By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer
By all accounts they were happy to get him.
Neel Sheth had agreed to move to the village of Deshler to be the town doctor. For a decade, Deshler’s leaders had been trying to attract doctors to their tiny spot on the Henry County map. Some came to stay for a year, some two, but they’d all leave.
“It’s important to have a doctor in town you can call at any time of the day or night,” said Donald Tussing, the longtime mayor of Deshler’s 1,700 people.
So when Dr. Sheth appeared – a budding star, the state’s family practice resident of the year, winner of rave reviews from patients – they thought they’d struck gold.
“We are very fortunate to have him,” said Henry County Hospital CEO Bob Coholich in April. It was front page news in the local paper.
On June 2, Dr. Sheth made the papers again, this time only as Mr. Sheth. He had been discovered as a fraud, law enforcement officials said. He had no medical degree, no medical license, no right to practice medicine.
In the law’s mind, he also had no right to prescribe medication, which is why on July 7 he will be arraigned on two felony drug-trafficking charges, with more charges possible.
Mr. Sheth declined to be interviewed for this article. His story is, like Dennis Roark’s, a cautionary tale about how some fake doctors slip through the system.
How did a man whose last diploma was from a high school end up convincing people he is a doctor?
And, just as curious, how can he be, in the opinion of several people, one of the state’s most promising physicians?
Neel Sheth was raised in Ann Arbor, Mich., the son of immigrants from India. His father had a good job as an engineer for Ford Motor Co., and young Neel started to dream of life as a doctor, a healer.
“He’s wanted to be a doctor forever,” said his wife, Julie, who has known him since they were children.
He was an excellent student, she said, getting mostly A’s at Huron High School. He and Julie stayed local for college, starting at the University of Michigan in 1986. She studied nursing, and he got into the college of pharmacy. He enrolled in a bachelor of science program in pharmaceutical sciences, a sparsely populated major with only a handful of students. According to the college, the program does not train graduates sufficiently to be certified as pharmacists; it’s most often used for students going on to PhD work.
His wife said Mr. Sheth was a fine student at U of M, averaging about a 3.8 grade-point average. But when his time at U of M came to an end at the end of 1990, despite his good grades, he didn’t have a degree. University officials will say only that he did not complete the degree requirements for the college of pharmacy.
But he still wanted to be a doctor, and the lack of a college degree did not stop Mr. Sheth from applying to a medical school – the Medical College of Ohio in Toledo.
Many American medical schools, including MCO, do not require an undergraduate degree for admission as long as a student has completed the pre-med requirements – a lengthy list of classes in biology, chemistry, physics, and other fields that don’t add up to any single major.
MCO accepted Mr. Sheth into its medical school in 1991. Officials knew he did not have an undergraduate degree, but “not every student has a degree when he or she arrives,” said MCO associate dean Dr. Mary Smith.
Members of Mr. Sheth’s class at MCO have mostly sketchy memories of him. Some remember seeing him in classes; some remember his name on the alphabetical list of students that MCO administrators used for dozens of purposes.
When asked why Mr. Sheth did not graduate from medical school, MCO spokesman Jim Winkler first said he had not passed part one of the National Board of Medical Examiners, a test of basic science and anatomy taken at the end of a student’s second year. When asked later about it again, Mr. Winkler retracted the comment and said he was not allowed to discuss the specifics of Mr. Sheth’s case.
Mrs. Sheth confirmed that her husband did not graduate because he failed to pass a board test. She said he had told her he had retaken the test and passed, something MCO’s records do not reflect.
(Mrs. Sheth filed for divorce from her husband about 18 months ago, but they speak regularly because of their three shared children.)
At MCO, but not at all medical schools, a student failing part one of the boards is allowed to continue taking classes with his fellow students. The only barrier is that the student must pass the board eventually in order to graduate.
Mr. Winkler confirmed that Mr. Sheth attended MCO for the four years standard for his class but did not graduate.
According to his wife, another important factor emerged on Aug. 11, 1994, when Mr. Sheth and two of his children were in a car accident near their home in Saline. It left one of the children critically injured and Mr. Sheth with serious ankle injuries that required several surgeries to repair.
Mr. Sheth fell behind in his work at MCO, his wife said, and never caught up. “Since the car accident, it’s just been one thing after another.”
It is standard practice for fourth-year med students to apply for entry into a residency program in the field of their interest. For Mr. Sheth, that was family practice, and one of the programs he applied to was at Flower Hospital in Sylvania. Flower’s family practice residency program was the first in Ohio and one of the first 12 nationwide.
Flower’s application process requires letters of recommendation, a medical school transcript, and a copy of a medical school diploma.
From Mr. Sheth, Flower officials got the letters, and they got the transcript. They never got the diploma and never asked MCO for a copy when one didn’t arrive.
“Honestly I don’t know why,” said Flower spokesman Tim Langhorst, trying to explain the lapse. “We didn’t do the proper level of checking.”
And so Neel Sheth, whose last diploma reads Huron High School and who had failed a basic anatomy test, was allowed to walk the halls of Flower Hospital, seeing patients, prescribing medications, and playing doctor.
What some might find most surprising about the story of Neel Sheth is that he was, by most accounts, a fine physician.
“I believe he was an excellent doctor,” said his wife. “He always got good reviews.”
And last September, when Flower was asked to name its top resident for nomination to the Ohio Academy of Family Physicians, Mr. Sheth got the nod. The academy named him one of 17 “outstanding residents” for the state of Ohio for his “community service, service to the academy, teaching, leadership, and involvement in special projects.”
Most stirring are the words of one of his patients, a woman willing to call Mr. Sheth “my savior” and who did not want to be identified for this article.
She was throwing up blood when she met Mr. Sheth in the emergency room at Flower. He was a first-year resident fresh out of MCO.
A patient with a slew of chronic ailments who had problems confiding in physicians, she took a liking to the young resident.
“I always had a hard time trusting doctors,” she said. “I’ve seen a lot of quacks.”
She was admitted for treatment, and Mr. Sheth checked on her regularly throughout her stay. She said he seemed professional, bright, and sensitive.
“I thought he was sensational,” she said. “Just brilliant, brilliant.”
The woman made him her regular doctor, sometimes seeing him several times a week for her many ailments. She stayed under his care throughout his residency, and her health improved.
Mr. Sheth prescribed his patient a host of drugs over the three years he treated her. Among them: Ultram, a pain pill; Lipitor, for cholesterol; Normadine, for blood pressure; Norphalex, a muscle relaxant, and Nasonex, for her sinuses.
“He always knew what to give me,” she said. “He knew me medically very well, much better than any other doctor ever has. It helped me feel much, much better.
“He was very professional. He acted just like what a doctor should act like,” the woman said. “He had an awful lot of patients who just loved him to pieces.”
She said she was “stunned” and “numb” when it became public that her doctor was not a doctor. She said she told him things she would not tell her family members. He was the only person she fully trusted.
“I told him up front that I wanted honesty, when I saw him the first time. He’s the only doctor I ever confided in. Now I don’t know if I can ever trust a doctor again.”
Henry County Hospital, in its attempts to start a clinic in Deshler, had hoped to bring in a different doctor, Dr. Eric Smith, but he is Canadian and there were immigration issues holding up the move.
So they turned to Mr. Sheth.
“Dr. Sheth saw the need and has made the commitment,” Mr. Coholich wrote in his letter to all Henry County residents. Mr. Sheth is a signal of “the hospital’s focus on physician recruitment,” he wrote.
The hospital renovated part of a nursing home to make room for the new town doctor. Mr. Sheth was set to start his practice there in August.
Problems began to mount, though, in April, when he applied for privileges on the medical staff at Flower Hospital, where he had been for the last three years. With privileges, Mr. Sheth would have been able to treat his Deshler patients at Flower if equipment there was needed.
But Flower’s policies require the hospital to check the backgrounds of anyone requesting privileges, including checking up on their education. The fact that Mr. Sheth had no medical school diploma became known, and he was thrown out of the residency program and his case turned over to law-enforcement authorities, officials at Flower said.
But after Flower learned Mr. Sheth was a fraud, they did not notify any other hospitals – even though the hospital knew he had been searching for other work and at least some of his patients and colleagues knew he had landed a job in Deshler.
“We did not notify anyone, no,” Mr. Langhorst said. Henry County Hospital officials learned about Mr. Sheth’s legal troubles through the physician rumor mill.
Mr. Coholich said Mr. Sheth would have had to undergo a similar credentialing process at Henry County Hospital and that the snag that caught him at Flower would have caught him there.
That doesn’t answer the question why the hospital hired him and put his face on brochures sent to every household in the county before doing a background check.
“Our premise is that he was in a residency program, so we didn’t check how he got into that residency program,” Mr. Coholich said.
Even with the legal concerns hanging over Mr. Sheth’s head, Mr. Coholich paused a few seconds before answering if he would consider hiring Mr. Sheth again.
“Just because he wasn’t up front with us initially, no,” he said. “He is a good, knowledgeable physician. He just had these other issues with the boards.”
Meanwhile, Mr. Sheth is preparing his legal defense and, according to his soon-to-be ex-wife, studying for the medical board tests and looking for another residency.