Medical error ends the life of a vibrant mom

SANDY LEACH, 55
Face-lift

Leach was a smart, stylish divorcée with a thriving real estate business in Sacramento, Calif. Her only real worry, says boyfriend Jim Miner, 61, was about looking older. "She thought she needed a face-lift," he says. "I tried to tell her she didn't."

But Leach knew what she wanted. On Oct. 31, 1999, she flew to Portland, Ore., for a face-lift by Dr. James Kilgore. Her daughter Rene Stettner, now 38, had been with her when she met the plastic surgeon: "We thought he was great," Stettner says.

At 8 a.m. on Nov. 1, Leach entered the Lovejoy Surgicenter, an outpatient clinic. Nurse anesthetist Lester Sturgis gave her sedation to keep her numb but semiconscious. As Kilgore was completing the forehead lift on his apparently healthy patient, she went into cardiac arrest; later, her family claimed that she was oversedated. Rushed to a nearby hospital, she was brain-dead by that evening.

In January Leach's family settled a civil suit with Surgicenter and Sturgis: The nurse's insurer paid $435,000, while the clinic paid another $10,000. Now Leach's daughter Darcy Johnson, 34, says she hopes her mom's tragic story will help others "think twice.... Is plastic surgery really worth it?"

A midlife touch-up goes horribly wrong

JAMES MCCORMICK, 51
Brow- and eye-lift, chin lipo

To James McCormick, it seemed like a bargain: Get your eyes and brows lifted, and doctors will throw in a discounted chin implant. But on Nov. 13, 2003, when the Florida Center for Cosmetic Surgery discharged the Ft. Lauderdale bartender shortly after his surgery ended, McCormick's friend Duran Schmidt was shocked. "He was in a wheelchair, he had a sock over his head, cut out so he could breathe," says Schmidt. "I don't see how they could release him." The next day, on his 51st birthday, McCormick died in bed. Coroners are still attempting to determine the exact cause of death, but the tragedy sent up a red flag in Florida, where four other people died from plastic surgery performed in offices in the past year. (The state's board of medicine is investigating.) Says Schmidt: "It just seems like a waste to make yourself look better—and end up dead."

A botched surgery at an outpatient clinic

JULIE RUBENZER, 38
Breast implants

An upbeat saleswoman and marathon runner, Julie Rubenzer was no stranger to the knife: By 2003 she had had a rhinoplasty, two procedures to plump and reshape her breasts and collagen injections in her lips. The reason she chose Dr. Kurt S. Dangl to perform another breast augmentation, says ex-husband Bob Rubenzer: "Other doctors were turning her down. She was the perfect female specimen."

An M.D. who was once licensed as a dentist, Dangl performed implant surgery on Rubenzer at the Cosmetic Surgery Center at a strip mall in Sarasota. His record was not unblemished: The Florida Department of Health had logged a complaint against him for deceptive practices. According to an anesthesia expert consulted by a lawyer for Rubenzer's parents, Dangl acted as both surgeon and anesthetist that day—giving Julie "gross overmedication," in the words of the expert. A certified surgical technologist who asks to remain anonymous tells PEOPLE that he was present when Rubenzer's heart and breathing stopped as the surgery was ending; Dangl, he said, squeezed air into her lungs with an "ambu" bag but delayed attempts to restart her heart. "Julie's fingers were just blue," says the CST. "She was dead on the table."

Not quite: Her heart eventually was restarted and she was taken to Doctors Hospital, where she lingered in a coma for 10 weeks. On Dec. 7 her parents, Bob and Maureen Ayer, took her home to Wisconsin in an air ambulance. She spent her last days curled in a fetal position at a medical center in Brookfield, Wis. On Dec. 26, she died.

Back in Florida, Dangl has declined to comment on the case (which reportedly is under investigation by state health officials). Says Bob Rubenzer: "He's still practicing, with big ads in the Sarasota papers."

What you need to know before surgery

Last year 8.3 million patients had cosmetic procedures in the U.S.—up 293 percent since '97. Some were performed by dentists or others "with no formal training in cosmetic surgery," says Dr. Robert W. Bernard, president of the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery. How to protect yourself:

•Choose a surgeon certified by the American Board of Plastic Surgery.
•Ask candidates about their safety records and consult your other physicians for recommendations.
•For an in-office face-lift or liposuction, ask whether the surgeon has privileges to do the procedure in the hospital that he's affiliated with. (If so, he'll have been vetted by the hospital's surgical committee.)

Deadly results of a secret surgery

TIFFANY JO HALL, 31
Liposuction

Hall must have known her mother, Bobbie Jo, would disapprove of her decision to have liposuction on her thighs, knees and abdomen. Bobbie Jo, 57, once worked in a Toledo, Ohio, surgical office and saw her share of cosmetic procedures—and knew the risks. So when the shocking call came saying that Tiffany, a water quality chemist in San Francisco, had died following surgery, Bobbie Jo assumed the operation had been to remove Tiffany's benign uterine tumors. A call from a journalist a month later was the first Bobbie Jo heard of her athletic daughter's attempt to get thinner with surgery. "Her body was just perfect to me," Bobbie Jo says. "I don't understand why she did it."

Tiffany had also kept the secret from her roommate, who found her slumped on the floor on May 24, 2002, the day after her operation. The roommate called 911, but Tiffany died from a blood clot. While rare, clots top the list of lipo's potentially fatal side effects. Despite her loss, Bobbie Jo isn't interested in a lawsuit, just in spreading the word. The media, she says, "bring out the glamorous side of liposuction, but not the risk."

Death strikes twice at a renowned institution

SUSAN MALITZ, 56
Face-lift

If Susan Malitz felt uneasy about having cosmetic surgery at the boutique hospital where author Olivia Goldsmith had a fatal reaction to anesthesia a month earlier, she didn't share it with the friend who lunched with her on Feb. 6. In fact, says her pal, the Easton, Conn., woman seemed excited about her plans.

Tragically, however, history repeated itself on Feb. 16, when Malitz died at Manhattan Eye, Ear & Throat Hospital. Like Goldsmith, she was stricken just after being anesthetized. As it happened, Malitz's health had put her at risk: A cancer survivor, she had myasthenia gravis, a neurological disease that can change the way the body reacts to anesthesia. The New York State Department of Health is investigating the deaths and exploring whether they represent a significant change in the hospital's mortality rates.

Written by: Michelle Green and Allison Adato. Reported by: Giovanna Breu and David Searles in Chicago, Lucia Greene in New York City, Siobhan Morrissey in Miami and Stacey Wilson in Portland

  • Contributors:
  • Giovanna Breu,
  • David Searles,
  • Lucia Greene,
  • Siobhan Morrissey,
  • Stacey Wilson.