Plastic Surgery Deaths Investigated

VIDEO: Lidvian Zalayas family hired an attorney after she died during surgery.

Some 9 million Americans had some part of their body lifted, plumped, reshaped, tucked or peeled last year. In sunny Florida, where cosmetic surgery is wildly popular, most folks don't even go to a hospital to get it done. But what's missing from some walk-in clinics there is a danger sign.

Watch Lynn Sherr's full report tonight on 20/20.

Since 1997, 36 people have died after cosmetic surgery in Florida — most of them not in hospitals, but in private offices. In the last year alone, there have been five such Florida deaths … at least one of which, according to an eyewitness, might well have been prevented.

Julie Rubenzer, who grew up outside Milwaukee, was a healthy, beautiful woman: 5-foot-6, 120 pounds, a cheerleader and a runner. Her parents, Maureen and Don Ayer, thought she was perfect. But Rubenzer — who had moved to Florida and was divorced and dating again — decided, at 38, to get her breasts enlarged at a private clinic in Sarasota. Her surgeon, Dr. Kurt Dangl, a dentist and oral surgeon by training, advertised his services on a Web site, complete with testimonials and the magic phrase "board-certified."

But Dangl was not certified by any board recognized by the state. And he did not have admitting privileges at any hospital. Even more worrisome: "He cut corners by not having an anesthesiologist or a nurse anesthetist in the room."

That was the observation of a surgical technician — call him "Matt" — who says he assisted Dangl a dozen times in the operating room. He said Dangl often administered too much anesthesia, and "at the beginning of the procedures, many times, I witnessed patients that would stop breathing."

Dangl himself could not be immediately reached for comment.

Hospitalized With E. coli and Staph Infection

Another patient, 64-year-old Clara Scott, went to Dangl for surgery, but when her operation lasted almost nine hours instead of the projected five, her daughter Stacy was concerned.

Stacy Scott was horrified when Dangl sent her mother home just half an hour after the surgery was completed. "Her head was as big around as a basketball. And her limbs were just jerking around. And she was trying to get up. And I passed out. And when I woke up he was shoving my mom in the passenger side of the car," Stacy said.

Clara, herself, was in agony and she was terrified. "Nothing was getting any better. And it was just getting totally worse," she said.

Clara Scott had a huge black spot on her face and said her "ears hurt so bad. They were so infected that they were just coming loose from my face."

When Stacy Scott asked Dangl to put her mother in the hospital, she says he told her he couldn't — because he didn't have admitting privileges anywhere. So Stacy found a hospital on her own, where Clara was quarantined with E.coli on her face and a staph infection on her belly. The treatment saved her life. But it took six more painful months for her wounds to heal, and Clara says it cost $25,000 … that's on top of the $10,000 Dangl charged, and which he demanded before the operation.

So Clara Scott took her case to state officials, and in April 2003, the Florida Department of Health issued a complaint, charging Dangl with misleading advertising, failing to document his procedures and failing to practice medicine with an acceptable standard of care.

‘She Just Crashed on the Table’

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