Desperate, Miars took extreme measures: On Sept. 5,2002, she underwent a gastric bypass at Corona Regional Medical Center, performed by Dr. Terry Sanderfer. But instead of regaining her figure, she lost her life. Miars's family contends the surgeon admitted to damaging an artery during the operation but downplayed it—and did so repeatedly when Miars developed a serious staph infection in recovery. "He kept saying, 'She's fine,' " says her father, Carlos, 72. Instead, Miars got sicker and sicker. Four weeks later she suffered massive internal bleeding and organ failure. "Her new doctor told me she wasn't going to make it," says Supatra somberly. "I told Felicia, 'If you can't hang on any longer, Mommy will take care of Dylan.' "
Miars died the next day, clutching a photo of her little boy in his Superman costume, and her husband later settled for $275,000 in a negligence lawsuit. Her tragedy is far from unique. Over the last six years, 13 of Sanderfer's patients have died from complications related to gastric bypass—a radical surgery that reduces the size of the stomach and circumvents the digestive tract. In June the California Medical Board filed a complaint against the doctor; a hearing sometime next year could determine whether Sanderfer should lose his medical license. To date, no criminal charges have been filed. "Our expert's conclusion is that Sanderfer committed repeated acts of negligence and incompetence," says deputy attorney general Steve Zeigen. "I can't say if this rises to a criminal level, but any case involving multiple patients potentially harmed is significant to us."
So far, Sanderfer, 58, isn't granting interviews, but his lawyer Jim Kjar says that only a handful of his 1,500 patients died as a result of gastric bypass—a mortality rate that falls within the 1 to 2 percent margin considered normal for the surgery. Sanderfer's attorney adds that his client had decided to stop doing weight-loss procedures before the medical board submitted its formal accusations because of high malpractice premiums, though he still performs general surgery. "He's a conscientious surgeon who cares about his patients," says Kjar. "I'm not saying he's never made a mistake, but in each case his medical judgment was appropriate."
But that judgment was under fire before the current investigation. Sanderfer, a general surgeon educated at University of California Irvine, has been sued more than 20 times by bereaved families and patients with postop problems, paying out $1.2 million in out-of-court settlements. A number of patients or their families have been interviewed by the medical board; many had serious concerns about Sanderfer's methods. "I don't think he monitored my condition as well as he should have," says Jeff Neff, a 21-year-old student at Chaffey College in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., who weighed 300 lbs. before Sanderfer performed gastric-bypass surgery in July 2001. After the procedure, Neff dropped to 160 lbs. but also suffered severe malnutrition. He says Sanderfer told him to treat the condition by taking Flintstones vitamins. Now Neff suffers from chronic gastritis and has eyes so badly damaged that he can no longer drive. "Frankly," he says, "I was healthier when I was fat."
Still, many of Sanderfer's former patients who underwent the approximately $25,000 operation say he transformed their lives. "The cases he takes on, nobody else would," says Dan Stanick, 59, a Corona, Calif., pretzel salesman who tipped the scales at 413 lbs. before a bypass performed by Sanderfer in '03 helped him slim down to 200 lbs. "He doesn't do this to make gobs of money. He does this to help people."
The family of Felicia Miars doesn't quite see it that way. "It's what's inside a person that counts, not how they look," says her father, who spends his days caring for grandson Dylan, now 5. "It's not worth dying for."
Richard Jerome. Ken Lee and Sandra Marquez in Riverside, Calif.