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September 15, 2009

Plastic Surgery Nightmares

Nip, tuck, fill, freeze--the promise of eternal youth has never been so great. But in today's hurting economy, greedy doctors are cutting corners and taking advantage in shocking ways.

model with one gloved hand and a medical needle in the other

Photo Credit: Liz Von Hoene

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Tears fall down Deyanira Polledo's face as she gently opens her sage paper gown. Furious red scars rip through the skin around her nipples, the left of which resembles a decayed mushroom molding off its stem. Slashing wounds, pink and raw, carve deep into the flesh under her breasts.

On March 19, Polledo walked into one of the ubiquitous cosmetic-surgery centers in Miami to have her breasts lifted and augmented with saline implants. All her friends—economy be damned—were doing it; the price here, at this dark office blasting Spanish telenovelas, was right. She never laid eyes on her doctor—who, she would later discover, holds a medical degree from Cuba, did only a one-year internship in this country, and has no board certification—until two minutes before he sliced her open. Even then, he didn't reveal his name. "I was scared, but I stayed," says Polledo. "Something in my heart told me to get out, but then I thought about the money I would give up." Seven thousand dollars—nonrefundable—had already been charged to her MasterCard.

Four days later, her nipples turned black. Her breasts were burning, flaming red. She hastened back to the squat concrete building covered in blue advertising banners, assuming the doctor would be as alarmed as she was. But he refused to see her. The clinic's owner, who is not a physician, handed over a prescription for antibiotics and sent her away. Three days after that, Polledo was rushed to the emergency room with a 107.5-degree fever from a raging infection devouring the flesh behind her implants. Her anonymous doctor had severed the arteries pumping blood to her nipples. She lay in the hospital for a month—unable to work or make payments on her home—with an IV feeding powerful drugs straight to her heart. Then she came to the office of Dr. Albert Gallerani, a board-certified plastic surgeon, who is treating her pro bono.

As Polledo gently closes the robe over her butchered chest, Gallerani returns from the next room, where he has been dissevering dead tissue from inside the abdomen of Lissette Pita, Polledo's friend who was also nearly killed getting her tummy tucked at the same place by a different doctor—who used unsanitary instruments and no gloves. There was so much necrotic tissue—which was on the verge of spreading throughout Pita's entire body and killing her—that Gallerani, having removed all the remaining fat, can fit two entire fists into the now-empty cavity just below her belly button.

"It's negligence, is what it is," says Gallerani, who spends long hours fixing botched surgeries done by unqualified practitioners. "Every week we see women who have gone to chop shops," says Maryann Boger, the manager of Gallerani's practice. "Women looking for the bargain, the deal."

Polledo's lawyer, Spencer Aronfeld—the go-to guy in Florida for cosmetic surgery gone wrong—turns away at least five women like Polledo and Pita every day. Because juries are reluctant to convict doctors in general and view these women as complicit in their injuries since they elected to have the procedures, winning a settlement—from a doctor who may not even have insurance—isn't easy.

These dubious practices have only been intensified by the faltering economy. Never before has there been such a tantalizing promise of eternal youth, with today's ready roster of tools to fill, tuck, and suction every imperfection. But never before have the risks been greater. Beauty-conscious women, once flush with extra cash in the glory days of a soaring Dow, have become hooked on pricey maintenance that they can now ill-afford. Doctors, reeling from declining insurance reimbursements for their medical services, are now recklessly offering discount aesthetic tweaks for which they have no training. It is in this unregulated world, where greedy practitioners prey on frantic women, that Polledo, a 37-year-old mother of three, lost her job and her house, while allowing her breasts to be mutilated.


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