Gordon performed the three surgeries at the Florida Center in about three hours on January 24, 2003. Smith appeared to tolerate the procedures, and Gordon didn't note any complaints at her follow-up visit the next morning, according to documents filed with the state Department of Health. Later on the day after the surgery, Smith was recovering at home, taking pain medicine prescribed by Gordon. When Smith appeared "lethargic," her family called 911, her husband's lawsuit claimed. Paramedics came to her house and offered to take her to the hospital, but she refused, the Florida Center for Cosmetic Surgery alleged in the lawsuit. Three hours later, Smith's family called 911 again, because now she was unconscious. She was pronounced dead at Memorial Hospital in Pembroke Pines.

An autopsy report said Smith died from an overdose of hydrocodone, one of the pain meds Gordon had prescribed. In 2004, an attorney with the Florida Department of Health filed a complaint alleging that Gordon "failed to include on [Smith's] prescription the maximum allowed dosage" for the painkiller and did not document whether he had discussed the risks of the surgery with Smith or told her the surgery could be performed in stages. In response, the state temporarily barred Gordon from performing more than one surgical procedure at a time and from prescribing high doses of painkillers.

Smith's husband filed a lawsuit in Broward Circuit Court in 2004 alleging that Gordon was negligent for "failing to appreciate that the amount of surgery that was being performed was too much surgery for an outpatient environment given Melda Smith's known medical conditions" and "should have been performed in a hospital or in stages" and for "negligently prescribing pain medication at twice the manufacturer's recommended dosage." In 2009, Smith won a $25,000 settlement from Gordon's insurance company. All of the state's charges against Gordon were dismissed.

Lidvian Zelaya had undergone surgery with Dr. Gordon a year earlier, so she trusted him.
Courtesy of Aronfeld Trial Lawyers
Lidvian Zelaya had undergone surgery with Dr. Gordon a year earlier, so she trusted him.
Osvaldo Vargas hired attorney Spencer Aronfeld to represent him after Vargas' wife died following surgery at Strax.
Photo by Michael McElroy
Osvaldo Vargas hired attorney Spencer Aronfeld to represent him after Vargas' wife died following surgery at Strax.

In December 2003, nearly a year after Smith's death, Gordon had a second patient die after surgery. Jacquelyn Roberts went to the Florida Center seeking a tummy tuck and breast reduction. Roberts worked designing ads for the Sun-Sentinel. At 45, she had two sons and a granddaughter. She struggled with her weight, carrying 186 pounds on a four-foot-nine frame; had high blood pressure and diabetes; and smoked. Still, both her primary-care doctor and a rheumatologist cleared her for surgery — although they noted she had an abnormal EKG. Two anesthesiologists also approved her for surgery, although they knew she had bronchitis.

Gordon performed both procedures during a three-hour surgery for Roberts in January 2004, and signs of trouble emerged immediately. As she woke up from the anesthesia, her blood pressure dropped. "I feel like I'm going to pass out," she said, according to a complaint later filed with the health department. She was given smelling salts, and her anesthesiologist said she could be sent home. That night, she stayed with her parents. They alleged in a later lawsuit that she was "in severe distress and pain, unable to sleep." The next day, her family took her back to the Florida Center, where she saw another doctor, Jeffrey Hamm. He wrote in his notes that she "looks great" and sent her home, according to the health department complaint.

Roberts was still in pain the next day and was having trouble breathing. Her family called 911. She was admitted to the Florida Medical Center's emergency room in septic shock and had "several cardiac arrests" in the hospital, the health department complaint says. She died the next morning. An autopsy concluded that her cause of death was pneumonia and diabetes and that she caught the pneumonia before the surgery.

The Florida Department of Health, which routinely investigates surgical deaths, filed a complaint alleging that Roberts had been a "poor candidate" for surgery and that Gordon had violated the law by failing to obtain an "adequate" pre-op exam and "adequate post-operative and follow-up care."

Gordon neither admitted nor denied the allegations against him. The Florida Board of Medicine fined him $10,000 and ordered him to do 100 hours of community service. Maryland's state medical board also put him on probation, in what they called "reciprocal action" for Florida's reprimand.

Roberts' family filed a wrongful death suit. This time, Gordon denied the allegations but settled for $250,000. The Florida Center for Cosmetic Surgery also paid the family $85,000.

In February 2004, two months after Roberts' death, Lynn Kirouac accused Gordon of leaving her breasts permanently scarred after a breast-lift-and-augmentation surgery. At trial, Gordon said the scarring was not related to his surgical technique. A jury awarded Kirouac $109,000.

After these and 20 other lawsuits filed by patients prompted a lengthy exposé in the Sun-Sentinel, the Center for Cosmetic Surgery filed for bankruptcy in 2004. But Gordon and Hamm both found a new place to work: Strax Rejuvenation.

"Plastic surgery's about money," Philip Feanny says bluntly. The attorney is a part-owner of Strax Rejuvenation and head of the company's business and legal affairs. "We've essentially changed the nature of plastic surgery in Florida," he says. "It was a business venture. We saw a need and a desire, and we sought to fill it."

Though defensive and quick to argue when first reached by phone, Feanny eventually agrees to meet in person. Unwilling to give a tour of Strax until he has vetted New Times' questions, he drives his BMW to an interview at his lawyer's office in Davie. At 45, he's short, tanned, and confident in a blue shirt and gray slacks.

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