Broward County

Breast-surgery complications kill West Boca High cheerleader

Stephanie Kuleba had a charmed life: captain of the varsity cheerleading squad at West Boca High, a nearly perfect grade-point average, good looks and a ticket to the University of Florida, where she would start her journey toward becoming a medical doctor.

Her friends said she was "perfect," so when Kuleba died Saturday of complications from breast augmentation surgery, none of them could understand how the girl whose success in life "was a sure thing" could perish in such a strange and devastating fashion. "She was a role model for a lot of people," said friend and classmate Vicky Goldring, 16. "She was incredibly smart. She wanted to help people. She was just a happy 18-year-old girl."

Kuleba died after she suffered a fatal reaction to anesthesia during corrective breast augmentation surgery, ABC's Good Morning America reported Tuesday morning.

Nearly two hours into the surgery, Kuleba was rushed to Delray Medical Center, where she died 24 hours later, said the family's attorney Roberto Stanziale.

Kuleba was undergoing surgery to correct asymmetrical breasts and an inverted areola, Stanziale told the program.

Doctors believe the cause of death was malignant hyperthermia, a relatively rare metabolic condition that can be triggered by certain anesthesia. A patient's heart rate and metabolism rises, causing the body temperature to rise as high as 112 degrees.

Board-certified plastic surgeon Stephen Schuster performed the surgery at an outpatient facility at 1905 Clint Moore Road in Boca Raton.

"I am devastated by the loss and I feel for the family," he said in a statement.

"The surgery itself was very personal," said Benny Perlman, a friend of Kuleba's who spoke on behalf of her grieving family Monday night. "She passed away from complications during surgery.

"She was a wonderful person and she changed all our lives."

Kuleba was beloved by classmates at West Boca High, more than 400 of whom gathered outside the school Sunday night for a candlelight vigil. They hung Kuleba's shining silver pompons and cheerleading T-shirt on the fence outside the school and left flowers, pictures and handwritten notes beneath the display.

One note had lyrics to Hey Jude, a Beatles song that Kuleba loved.

"Take a sad song and make it better," the note read.

In her reserved "senior" parking spot, the one where she parked her white Lexus every school day, friends placed more flowers, teddy bears and pictures.

"It's hard to believe she's gone," said classmate Vanessa Villegas 16. "She just made everybody's day by having a good attitude about life. Today was a hard day for a lot of people."

Organizers charged $1 for each candle at the vigil - money that will be given to Kuleba's family for expenses.

With her long blond hair and shy smile, Kuleba charmed people from an early age, friends said. A talented athlete, her path toward cheerleading began with competitive gymnastics.

In 2000, National Gymnastics of Boca Raton took 30 of its students, including Kuleba, to one of the nation's biggest gymnastics invitationals - the Gasparilla Gymnastics Classic in Tampa. Competing in bars, beam, floor and vault against others in her age group and skill level, an 11-year-old Kuleba placed first all-around.

"She was very talented," said Leila Milgrim, 16, a friend of Kuleba's. "She was a great athlete. And she had all of these other things going for her, too. She did everything well."

Kuleba had brains to match her beauty, friends said, earning a GPA above 4.0, acing advanced placement courses and earning an acceptance letter from the University of Florida.

She was excited about taking pre-med courses in Gainesville. But the day she really looked forward to was in May, when she was to go to her senior prom for one last hurrah with her friends.

She'd just bought a stunning dress and made plans with a date.

"It was a great time in her life," said friend and classmate Larraine Saavedra, 16.

Cheerleading and academics made for a rigorous schedule but Kuleba still spent three years working an after-school waitressing job at a Rotelli's restaurant.

On her days off she would often stop by the restaurant with friends and order her favorite dish: a Malibu salad with fresh mozzarella.

Her name is still scribbled on the Rotelli's schedule, slated to work after school Thursday.

"She was fantastic and she stood out, because of how positive and friendly she was," said Cathy Bilotti, 37, who owns the Rotelli's. "She had a glow about her that attracted and soothed people."

Like many of Kuleba's friends, Bilotti said she had heard her employee's death stemmed from complications during surgery.

"If you knew her, you wouldn't think she needed that," said Bilotti. "She's perfect."

In recent years, doctors have performed an increasing number of procedures such as breast implants, liposuction and tummy tucks on young women and even girls as young as 14.

The enormous popularity of reality TV shows like Extreme Makeover have fueled the desire of adolescent girls to alter their bodies permanently, and they are finding more surgeons willing to oblige them. Breast implants and liposuction are now bestowed by parents as graduation or birthday gifts. Some doctors say they have performed breast augmentations on Baby Boomer mothers and their teenage daughters.

From 2002 to 2003, according to the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, the number of women and girls 18 and younger who got breast implants nearly tripled, from 3,872 to 11,326.

Among all age groups, cosmetic implants have skyrocketed in popularity, according to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons.

Last year, according to the ASPS, about 247,000 women got implants for augmentation, compared with 32,000 in 1992.

Anesthesia is a way to control pain using medication. In rare cases, allergic reaction to local or general anesthetic can create health risks or even cause death.

Memorial information: Visitations for Stephanie Kuleba will be held from 2 to 4 p.m. and 6 to 8 p.m. today at Babione Funeral Home, 10060 Calle Comercio, in suburban Boca Raton. A funeral Mass will be held at 10 a.m. Wednesday at St. Jude Catholic Church, 21689 Toledo Road, in suburban Boca Raton.