12/20/2004 at 01:00 AM EST
At first, the story sounded almost impossible: Just before Thanksgiving, two couples got injections at Advanced Integrated Medical Center, a Fort Lauderdale-area clinic that offered Botox treatments—and fell gravely ill with botulism. As of Dec. 7, all four—Alma Jane Hall, 34, and her sometime boyfriend Dr. Bach McComb, 47; and chiropractor-turned-holistic-health-guru Eric Kaplan, 52, and his wife, Bonnie, 53—were in intensive care. And there were still more questions than answers: Botox is made by Allergan of a purified protein derived from a botulinum bacterium, and medical authorities say if administered correctly, it cannot cause botulism. So what happened?
The prime suspect, doctors now believe: bogus Botox. "It seems clear that these patients did not get Botox," says Dee Anna Glaser, M.D., associate professor and director of cosmetic dermatology at St. Louis University School of Medicine. "There is no live botulism in Botox, but that may be very different for [an imitator] that is not FDA-approved."
Imitators aren't hard to find. Toxin Research International, an Arizona company, has been blitzing Florida doctors with fliers touting a botulinum-based injectable that's cheaper than Botox. After the four became ill, investigators found the fliers at Advanced Integrated, a cut-rate clinic that advertised a "Botox Blowout" for $199 (far less than the $300 to $425 charged per treatment by reputable clinics).
Ironically, one of the victims, McComb, reportedly was named by the Kaplans as the person who administered their injections. He has faced a number of professional challenges of late: An osteopath whose physician's license was suspended in April 2003, he is facing trial on eight felony charges of "prescribing controlled substances for monetary gain," in the words of Jason Kelley, a Sarasota County assistant state attorney. (McComb has pleaded not guilty to the charges.) Two of McComb's patients died of accidental overdoses in '02. And he reportedly worked at Advanced Integrated—which was licensed only as a therapeutic massage establishment—even though it would have been illegal for him to give injections.
Romantically involved with Hall, a fellow employee at the clinic, McComb had flown with her to New Jersey as a Thanksgiving surprise for his mother, June. The two reportedly developed symptoms including paralysis by Nov. 26 and were hospitalized in Bayonne, where family members rushed to their sides. Hall's sister Florence Ever-mon, who lives in Georgia, says that Alma Jane—who communicates with her by moving her toes—is clearheaded but very frightened: "Her lungs shut down, she can't open her eyes, she's basically paralyzed."
Back in Florida, the Kaplans fell desperately ill that same weekend and began fighting for their lives at the Palm Beach Gardens Medical Center. A chiropractor and acupuncturist, Eric Kaplan is known as a zealous entrepreneur who promotes alternative therapies. Author of Dr. Kaplan's Lifestyle of the Fit & Famous, he drew the wrath of Donald Trump with a claim that the Apprentice-master was a fan. ("I've never heard of him," Trump says.)
Kaplan, who friends say began focusing on nutrition and health when his wife, Bonnie, a school principal, was diagnosed with cancer a few years ago, "is incredibly careful with his health and hers," says Dr. Frederick Storer, medical director at AIM Spa in Jupiter, where Kaplan was a consultant. "He never would have used an off-brand [of Botox], and he never would have jeopardized his own life or his wife's."
Tests being conducted by the FDA on vials found at the Florida clinic should shed light on the mystery, but for now the victims' loved ones are focusing on the excruciating recovery process. On Dec. 5 friends attended a prayer service for the Kaplans at Temple Judea in West Palm Beach. And in Bayonne, Hall's family take turns at her bedside. Says sister Lisa Robinson: "They tell us that all we can do now is wait and pray. We just want a miracle. We just need everybody's prayers."
Michelle Green. Fannie Weinstein in Bayonne, Gail Shepherd and Lori Rozsa in West Palm Beach, Siobhan Morrissey in Fort Lauderdale and Jeff Truesdell in Orlando