Deaths at Strax, One of South Florida's Most Popular Plastic Surgery Centers, Raise Questions About the Safety of Cheaper Nips and Tucks

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Plastic surgery was once available only to the rich but has become more common as costs have dropped, procedures have become less invasive, and outpatient facilities like Strax have made them affordable to the masses. For some, loans make the procedures even more attainable. Strax's website says "patients may be pre-approved for financing with a low-interest monthly payment plan." Last year, 13.1 million cosmetic procedures were performed in this country, a 77 percent increase since 2000, according to the American Society for Plastic Surgeons.

Strax has a rotating roster of roughly 14 board-certified doctors, who are not on staff but rather work as independent contractors at the company's offices in Lauderhill and Boca Raton. The company's doctors have performed a combined 30,000 surgeries in the past seven years, according to one of the five co-owners.

In 1980, Dr. Philip Strax founded the Strax Breast Cancer Detection Institute in Fort Lauderdale as a nonprofit mammography center. Strax was a radiologist who pioneered the use of mammograms for early, life-saving detection of breast cancer. After he died in 1999, the institute became a for-profit business and switched ownership. In 2004, the current owners bought it. Though they hoped to maintain the facility's patient base and name recognition, they closed the mammography institute, renamed it Strax Rejuvenation, and began focusing on plastic surgery.

As Vargas and Zelaya drove to Strax that morning in December, Vargas tried to calm his wife by reminding her that a friend's mother had recently survived risky open-heart surgery. By contrast, he said, "I think that liposuction is not dangerous."

Eventually, the couple arrived in the Strax waiting room, located on the second floor of a white office building on University Drive in Lauderhill. It has a flat-screen TV and a wall of plaques featuring each doctor's picture and highlights of each résumé. At the front desk, women in scrubs sit behind a placard advertising the "G-Shot " — a procedure that "augments the G-Spot, resulting in enhanced sexual arousal and sexual gratification for 87% of normal sexually functioning women."

A nurse called Zelaya's name. She went into another room. "That's the last time I saw her alive," Vargas says.

Zelaya's doctor was Roger Gordon, one of the most popular surgeons at Strax. He routinely performed three to four surgeries a day. On Strax's website was a picture of Gordon smiling widely, his smooth skin tight and youthful, his auburn hair receding.

Gordon had performed breast augmentation surgery on Zelaya at Strax in 2009. The procedure had gone well, and she trusted him.

In the exam room, Zelaya removed her clothes. She stood while Gordon took a black marker and outlined her breasts and butt, laying out a map for his work.

She was wheeled into an operating room. The procedure would take about two hours.

Zelaya lay in a fog of anesthesia-induced sleep. Gordon carved what he called five, half-inch "stab wounds" around her lower abdomen, according to his operating notes and the autopsy report. Two more smaller slices went between her ribs, aimed at her "bra rolls." He connected a vacuum to a thin tube and inserted it under her skin, suctioning more than 4,000 cubic centimeters of fat. The resulting globs were purified and measured.

The staffers in the room turned Zelaya's body over so Gordon could make two more stab wounds above her tailbone. He injected 1,000 cc's of fat into each butt cheek — making them look round and high.

But something went wrong. A glob of fat entered Zelaya's bloodstream and clogged her arteries. Gordon was sewing the patches of her skin back together when the anesthesiologist told him there was a problem. Zelaya's heart had stopped beating.

The doctors tried to resuscitate her. They called 911. A nurse emerged to tell Vargas: "Your wife, something happened, and she is going to the hospital."

Vargas followed the ambulance in the Expedition, flooring the gas pedal as they neared Florida Medical Center. "She's fine, she's good, she's alive?" he pestered a paramedic but was told he had to wait.

Gordon did not accompany Zelaya to the hospital; he had lost his privileges at Florida Medical Center.

Finally, a stranger, a doctor Vargas had never met, emerged to deliver the news: "She passed away. We can't do anything for her."

"That was the most terrible moment of my life," Vargas remembers.

By the time Vargas came to Gordon for her Christmas surgery, three of his patients had died.

Gordon graduated from medical school at the University of Maryland in 1972, did his plastic-surgery residency training in New Jersey, and worked in Maryland for the next three decades.

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Lisa Rab
Contact: Lisa Rab