FDNY Bravest taking the cruise cure
Not many medical clinics frame and display a filthy gym towel.
But then, not many medical clinics are bankrolled by Tom Cruise, target ailing firefighters who worked at Ground Zero and follow the teachings of the Church of Scientology.
"We're helping people," Jim Woodworth, director of Downtown Medical, said the other day as several firefighters sat in the clinic's 168-degree sauna.
As for that soiled towel in the frame above his desk, Woodworth said its purple stains prove toxins still lurk inside rescue workers who toiled at Ground Zero.
"This is what our first patient was sweating out for 13 days," Woodworth said. "We took that to the lab. We found magnesium, mercury, aluminum.
"You know why I put that up there?" Woodworth asked. "I put that up there because that's freakin' cool."
But the Fire Department has no use for Downtown Medical and its disputed detoxification program.
FDNY officials are concerned that many of the 120 firefighters who sought help at the clinic stopped using inhalers and medications prescribed by department doctors.
Fire officials also say the department has no proof that the clinic's regimen of moderate exercise, vitamins and saunas removes toxins from the body.
"Our doctors went down there and checked it out," said Deputy Commissioner Frank Gribbon. "Their opinion was this was not a detoxification program. We don't endorse it."
This month, the city's largest firefighters union yanked its support of Downtown Medical.
The Uniformed Firefighters Association initially praised the clinic for its "unique" work. But sources said the union reconsidered after some firefighters questioned the clinic's methods and connections to Scientology - a movement described as both a persecuted religion and a dangerous cult.
A union spokesman, Tom Butler, told the Daily News that Downtown Medical "made claims that have yet to be backed up by scientific data.
"The clinic's ability to prove its case to the department's top doctors ... is absolutely critical in gaining the union's confidence," Butler said.
Fans of the program
Located on the fifth floor of an unimpressive office building on Fulton St., Downtown Medical is just blocks from Ground Zero. On one day, five firefighters at the center were receiving treatments aimed at curing respiratory problems, fatigue, memory loss and other problems they attribute to Ground Zero. All of them vouched for the program.
Bob Barrett, a 62-year-old retired firefighter, who worked at Ground Zero for several weeks, said the clinic's care improved his breathing and cured nagging muscle aches.
"I felt like I owed it to my family to take advantage of this detox," he said.
The detox program follows the teachings of the late L. Ron Hubbard, a science fiction writer who founded the Church of Scientology.
The regimen includes doses of the vitamin niacin, exercise, saunas, repeated showers and the digestion of a small amount of polyunsaturated oils.
The goal of the rundown is to remove toxic chemicals stored in the body.
"We've had firemen sweat out black, yellow, gray, purple," Woodworth said. "We've had patients with yellow bowel movements, green bowel movements, purple bowel movements."
Patients undergo three-hour treatments seven days a week, from 21 to 40 days.
The regimen costs $5,200. But rescue workers pay nothing.
In many cases, Tom Cruise, perhaps Scientology's best-known adherent, picks up the tab. Woodworth said other donors also provide support.
The clinic's medical director, Dr. Kawabena Nyamekye, said the clinic does not tell rescue workers to stop taking prescription drugs but helps them get off their medicines if they insist.
"We make sure they do it safely," he said.
Clinic officials said they will have the regimen peer-reviewed, but added such research takes time.
Woodworth argued it would be unfair to deny the firefighters treatments until the research is complete. He insisted existing data prove the regimen works.
Dr. James Dahlgren, a toxicologist who teaches at UCLA, said the detox program helped a woman he monitored in 1987 who had PCB poisoning.
"I'm not a Scientologist, so I'm not interested in Mr. Hubbard's being the author," he said. "But it's something that seems to work."
But Dr. Kerry Kelly, the chief medical officer for the Fire Department, said she has seen no "objective evidence" to support Downtown Medical's claims.
"The essence of their program is you stay in it until you suddenly wake up and say, ‘I feel great,'" she said. "It's hard to have faith in a program like that."
She added, "I have trouble believing in these purple-stained towels."
Downtown Medical has its roots in a pair of California groups - the Foundation for Advancements in Science and Education, and HealthMed. Both have pushed Hubbard's teachings in the secular world for about 20 years.
The foundation and HealthMed, as well as Downtown Medical, have no formal ties to the Church of Scientology. But several of their top officials are church members.
Woodworth, a Scientologist, was executive director of HealthMed's office in Sacramento until last year. He said about half of Downtown Medical's staff are Scientologists.
Like Downtown Medical, the California groups have targeted people who were exposed to toxic substances on the job.
Called a failure
In the late 1980s, about 20 firefighters from Shreveport, La., began the detox program at HealthMed.
The City of Shreveport approved the care. But as costs mounted, the city's insurance carriers questioned the validity of the program and the city hired a consultant to evaluate it.
The resulting 1988 report, written by Dr. Ronald Gots, a toxicology expert from Bethesda, Md., found the treatments "preyed upon the fears of the concerned workers, but served no rational medical function."
Groups that monitor Scientology and consider it a cult supported that assessment. They also predicted Downtown Medical would use images of firefighters at the clinic in attempts to win credibility and funding.
"I wouldn't recommend the program to anyone under any circumstances whatsoever," said Rick Ross of the New Jersey-based Ross Institute, which tracks movements it deems cults.
Woodworth dismissed Gots, calling him a shill for insurance companies. He called Ross a thief, giving The News a 1975 article about Ross' arrest for stealing diamond jewelry when he was 22.
Woodworth, however, has his own troubled past.
He told the Daily News he was a drug addict until 1986.
"I enjoyed my pot very much," he said. "But I did the [Hubbard detox] program, and I never did another drug."
When The News toured Downtown Medical, copies of Hubbard's best-selling self-help book "Clear Body, Clear Mind" sat on a table in the lobby.
A Hubbard quotation was inscribed on the frame of a painting in the television lounge. It reads: "Whatever man strives, wherever he works, whatever he does, the good he does outweighs the evil." But Woodworth and firefighters at the clinic said no efforts are made to convert anyone to Scientology.
Joe Higgins, a retired firefighter now paid by the clinic, said: "If this was about religion, how many firefighters do you think would have gone through it? Zero. It helped me and it is helping a lot of other rescue workers."
Israel Miranda, the health and safety coordinator for the Uniformed EMTs and Paramedics union, also sits on Downtown Medical's advisory board. He has referred about 15 EMTs to the program but said he is not paid by the clinic.
While firefighters at the clinic said they seldom hear Hubbard mentioned, one name does come up constantly: Tom Cruise.
Woodworth showed The News photos of Cruise visiting firefighters at the clinic. He also offered several rescue workers passes to last week's premiere of Cruise's latest movie, "The Last Samurai."
Woodworth said Cruise, who did not return calls, co-founded the clinic and continues to provide funding.
During a Nov. 28 appearance on CNN's "Larry King Live," Cruise praised the clinic for working "miracles."
"Doctors do not know how to diagnose chemical exposures, because it can actually have mental ramifications," he argued. "There's things that we can do to help," he added. "Scientologists want to help people."