In My Opinion

Fred Grimm: Lure is beauty, results anything but

Death is just one of the potential side effects.

Add hardened lumps migrating under the skin. Consider inflammation, vomiting, diarrhea, sepsis, staph infections, oozing abscesses, amputations, loss of control of basic bodily functions, horrible chronic pain, coma.

And then there’s grotesque disfigurement — such an unkind irony given that all these miseries were risked in pursuit of… of… I don’t know. Beauty? Sexiness. Youthfulness. Round buttocks. Full lips.

Criminals pump their patients with counterfeit Botox or industrial-grade silicone or sometimes off-the-shelf chemical compounds. Oneal Ron Morris injected the face and buttocks of his South Florida customers with mineral oil and the same chemical compound found in tire repair products like Fix-A-Flat, then dressed the wound with cotton and Super Glue. It hardly seems surprising that two of Morris’ patients later died of what the Broward County medical examiner described as “massive systemic silicone migration.”

Just to look voluptuous.

These are awful crimes. And the criminals who administer these crude procedures kill and maim for profit. But what to think about the victims, who submit willingly to this insane quackery, paying for procedures by questionable characters in questionable places? All in a region where the media has made much of the crippling and deadly outcomes.

All for vanity. That people continue to pay considerable sums for illegal and dangerous cosmetic surgeries remains one of South Florida’s enduring conundrums.

A dozen years ago, a 53-year-old Miami secretary named Vera Lawrence died in an unremarkable Miramar apartment that no sane person could mistake for a doctor’s office. She had been attending the silicone equivalent of a Tupperware party and died with 36 fresh needle punctures on her hips and a silicone embolism in one lung. But she had to sense the risk.

“You would think that with all the publicity and the warnings about the dangers of silicone injections, that it would raise a red flag,” said Enrique Torres, chief investigator for the Florida Department of Health’s unlicensed activity office, told me after Vera Lawrence’s death. “But what I’m finding is quite the opposite. It still goes on. More than ever.”

And it still goes on. More than ever.

Just last week, El Nuevo Herald reporter Maria Perez reported that Miami radio personality Betty Pino died after surgery to repair escalating complications from silicone injections that had become hardened, painful deformities beneath her skin. The surgeon and county medical examiner’s office don’t agree on why she lapsed into a coma after the June operation and never regained consciousness. But the undisputed reason Pino was on the operating table was to get rid of the vile silicone mess some unknown hack had injected into her four years earlier.

In June, a 59-year-old fake nurse named Sheri Goldman, already on probation for peddling Botox injections out of a Boca Raton beauty shop, was busted after investigators noticed that she was running a $159 Groupon special. What were her bargain-hunting patients thinking?

In April, Suyima Torres, 28, a pretty mother of two, was lured into a so-called clinic in a West Flagler Street shopping plaza for a $1,500 buttock enhancement, administered by someone who described himself as a Venezuelan doctor. He gave her two injections, 10 days apart, with an oily yellow substance. A few hours after the second injection, she was dead with a lung embolism. It turned out that the clinic was licensed as a massage parlor. The supposed “doctor” quickly disappeared.

A quick check with the Florida Board of Medicine, even a Google search might have warned her off. Though sometimes, even the most obvious lack of professionalism doesn’t discourage “patients.” About the same time as the Vera Lawrence death, the Department of Health busted two fake dentists who ran a gold-tooth-capping scam out of the Fort Lauderdale Swap Shop. They hustled passersby, then took customers to a parked car to make dental impressions and install the golden grills. Conditions were filthy and no precautions were made to clear food particles trapped beneath the new gold caps and avoid infections. The DOH moved in after customers complained that their natural teeth were falling out after the gold installations. But what the hell were they thinking?

What were patients thinking in 2004 when they read the cheesy fliers stuck on their windshields in supermarket parking lots promoting Dr. Bach McComb’s “Botox blowout?” For “only $199,” the Oakland Park doctor would gladly inject patients with a solution that promised to relieve muscle spasms, headaches, migraines and — what really matters in South Florida — facial wrinkles. It was, as the flier said, about “age reversal.”

Dr. McComb, as opposed to so many of these vanity quacks, actually had a medical degree. He was an osteopath. But at the time McComb was administering his Botox blowouts, his medical license had been suspended for handing out prescriptions of OxyContin like candy at Halloween. Five of his patients died from overdoses of the highly addictive painkiller in 2002.

This time around, it turned out that his bargain Botox wasn’t Botox at all but live cultures of botulinum toxin clearly labeled not for use on humans.

His own girlfriend was among his victims. The effects, she later testified in federal court, began with flu-like symptoms, a loss of bladder control, falling in and out of consciousness. Then came months in a hospital, on a respirator. In pain and paralysis, able to move only her toes. Because she couldn’t close her eyes, doctors taped them shut. She was unable to talk.

“I was trapped in my own body,” she said. The lingering effects, three years later, were nosebleeds, nausea, loss of vision, backaches, kidney stones, chronic fatigue, anxiety attacks, nightmares and a necessary supply of adult diapers.

All in the pursuit of beauty.

The victims keep coming, despite an unending string of horror stories in the South Florida media.

“I think the promise of beauty, to some people, is more addictive than heroin,” DOH investigator Torres told me back in 2002. So many tragedies later, his words have not a trace of hyperbole.

Read more Fred Grimm stories from the Miami Herald

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