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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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The next day, the patient "insisted" on returning to Strax for a post-op evaluation with Gordon, and once again, he didn't see a problem. He asked her to come back the next day, but she didn't keep the appointment. Six days later, Strax staffers reached her by phone and scheduled another appointment. "At that time, no information was ever relayed that the patient was in any kind of medical distress," Gordon wrote.

The next night, Palmetto hospital called Gordon. The patient had been admitted to the emergency room in shock. She died the next morning. The state health department found no probable cause to pursue the case. It's unclear if the patient's family has filed a lawsuit.

Among doctors at Strax, Gordon is not the only one with a questionable past. Mario Diaz, the anesthesiologist who assisted with Zelaya's surgery, was criminally prosecuted in Iowa for issuing internet prescriptions in 2004. His license was suspended in Florida in 2007, but he's now able to work while on probation. John Nees, another Strax surgeon, had his Florida medical license suspended from 2004 to 2010.

Feanny has explanations for these blots: Diaz "got caught up in the early days of online prescriptions. He's a guy who made a mistake." And Nees' suspension stemmed from a romance with a patient in Washington state and "doesn't have anything to do with his surgical acumen."

Then there's Hamm, Gordon's colleague from the Florida Center for Cosmetic Surgery. In the past 15 years, Hamm has paid $1 million to settle malpractice cases filed against him involving patients who suffered infections and scarring. In a letter to Memorial Regional Healthcare Center, Hamm's attorney, Woulfe, argued that those payments were not an indicator of fault; many settlements were arranged because Hamm's insurance company was ending its business in Florida and wanted to get the cases off its books.

In June 2005, a 32-year-old patient identified only as M.A. arrived at Strax asking for liposuction on her stomach, butt, and thighs. A pre-op blood test — which Hamm later contended he did not order or see before the surgery — revealed that M.A. had diabetes, according to a complaint filed by a Florida Department of Health attorney.

Hamm proceeded with her surgery. The patient developed a life-threatening chemical imbalance and was transferred to Broward General Hospital, where she spent a month recovering.

In a letter to the American Board of Plastic Surgery, Hamm says the patient denied having diabetes in a written questionnaire before the surgery. He says he was not in the office the day of her first visit, so he did not order the first blood test and didn't see it until after the surgery. Feanny says Hamm paid for the woman's hospital stay and "essentially saved her life."

The state health board prosecutor alleged that Hamm "failed to meet the standard of care" by clearing M.A. for surgery without ordering further blood tests, despite her "dangerously elevated glucose level."

Feanny disagrees. "If she states that she's completely healthy, it would not be the standard of care to order a blood test," he says.

After a lengthy, expensive battle against the charges, in 2009, Hamm was punished by the Florida medical board. He's permanently barred from performing major liposuction procedures (removing 1,000 cubic centimeters of fat or more). His license was suspended for a year, although the punishment was enforced for only three months. He was also given one year of probation and a $10,000 fine.

"He couldn't afford to fight," Feanny says. "Did he do anything wrong? Absolutely not."

In June 2008, a third patient died after surgery at Strax. The unidentified woman had a face-lift, neck lift, and eyelid tuck at the Lauderhill office. Dr. Paul Goldberg, her surgeon, also administered her anesthesia during the operation. While the patient was in the recovery room, her oxygen level dropped far below normal. Goldberg ordered a nurse to give the patient a drug that would counteract some of the powerful opiates he administered during surgery. The patient was discharged that afternoon, had dinner with her family, and went to sleep. The next morning, she was dead.

The medical examiner said she was killed by a toxic combination of drugs, including a "lethal level"of Dilaudid, a narcotic that had been given to her during surgery, according to a complaint filed with the Florida Health Department. The complaint alleged that Goldberg "failed to meet the standard of care" either by overdosing the patient and/or "failing to diagnose that the Patient was overdosed on narcotics and allowing her to be discharged before this condition was alleviated."

Woulfe, who also represents Goldberg, wrote a letter to the Florida Health Department investigator contesting the allegation. He said the amount of Dilaudid that Goldberg gave the patient during surgery was "appropriate" and that she must have taken more after she went home. There is "no other medical explanation" for her having a lethal dose in her system nearly 12 hours after the surgery, he wrote.

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Lisa Rab
Contact: Lisa Rab