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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If the woman was able to go home, have dinner, and go to bed, she could not have been overdosed during surgery, Feanny adds. He says her family must have "overmedicated her."

Goldberg no longer works at Strax. Feanny says that he left on good terms and that it had nothing to do with the death. According to the Florida Department of Health, Goldberg now works at several local offices, including A Pain Clinic of Boca Raton and A Pain Clinic of West Palm Beach.

Feanny adamantly dismisses all the criticism of Strax, saying that other doctors resent Strax for lowering prices in the industry. He has sued people for spreading negative information about Strax on blogs.

"We're under more scrutiny than other people," he says.

This May, a fourth patient died after surgery at Strax. Rony Wendrow, 61, sister of Broward County Commissioner Ilene Lieberman, was undergoing neck and eyelid surgery when she developed breathing and heart problems. She was transferred to Florida Medical Center and died three days later. Official reports on what caused her death have not been made public. Feanny says Wendrow's family asked him not to discuss the case, and Wendrow's son didn't return a call seeking comment. But the death raised more concerns about the mortality rate at Strax.

A 2008 study published in the medical journal Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery found the mortality rate for surgeries performed in outpatient facilities was two deaths for every 100,000 procedures. Strax has had four deaths in roughly 90,000 procedures, so its mortality rate is twice as high as the national rate. Feanny argues that two of the deaths — the woman who died eight days after surgery and the woman who died of a drug overdose — should not be included in the count. "There's an intervening event there," he says. But deaths from similar, postoperative circumstances were counted in the journal study.

One outside observer — Dr. Walter Sullivan, a Las Vegas physician and attorney who is a former chairman of the ethics commission of the American Society of Plastic Surgeons — says that the high volume of surgery performed at outpatient facilities like Strax should not automatically cause concern. "There's no way to infer that there's anything questionable about them," he says. Complications, while rare, do occur, he says, and two or three deaths at a center that employs more than a dozen surgeons is "not necessarily indicative of anything."

But he did say that one plastic surgeon having four patients die in seven years is "worrisome." Although he did not know details of the Strax cases and was reluctant to say anything negative about physicians he had never met, he added, "I would hope the state [medical] board would take a very close look at this situation," referring to Gordon.

Dr. Alberto Gallerani, a plastic surgeon in Aventura, has harsher words: "Doctors end up working in places like Strax because they can't work on their own."

Strax is "really set up as a factory," Gallerani adds.

Gallerani claims that he performs corrective surgery for people unhappy with work they received at Strax. Gallerani gets some of his patients from Coral Gables attorney Spencer Aronfeld, who has been handling plastic-surgery cases for 20 years. Aronfeld says he's now reviewing 30 or 40 cases from patients wanting to sue Strax. Those clients include Vargas, who intends to file a lawsuit against Strax for Zelaya's death.

The Broward Circuit Court docket shows that six other malpractice and negligence cases have been filed against Strax since 2006. Five of the cases are still pending; the other was dismissed and sent to arbitration.

Although Feanny maintains that Gordon did nothing wrong in Zelaya's case and that a fat embolism is a rare but possible complication of liposuction, Aronfeld says his medical expert's theory is that Gordon injected too much fat deeply into Zelaya's body, raising the risk of complication. "There's no way to ascertain with exact specifics how far or how deep the fat was done," Aronfeld says. But "the most likely cause was it being too much, too deep."

For Vargas, after his wife died, weeks passed in a blur of grief. Gordon sent Vargas a condolence card. "I'm so sorry," he wrote.

Strax asked Gordon to temporarily stop seeing patients after Zelaya's death, but because of Gordon's "personal feelings," his absence might be permanent, Feanny says.

Vargas can't talk about his wife without weeping. "It's very, very difficult for me," he says through tears during a meeting at Aronfeld's office. Every day, he visits Zelaya at the cemetery. For a while, he contemplated joining her. "Sometimes I prefer I am dead too."

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Lisa Rab
Contact: Lisa Rab