Feb. 12, 2009 -- Two Tampa, Fla., women became gravely ill last month after an acquaintance allegedly injected them with a product believed to be a homemade combination of commercial silicone gel and saline, apparently to enhance the appearance of their buttocks, according to police reports.
Sharhonda Lindsay, 32, of Tampa, who is not a doctor, surrendered to police Wednesday morning after they issued a warrant Monday to arrest her for practicing medicine without a license.
According to Debbie Carter, a spokesperson for the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Department, one of the two women who received the injections paid $500 for 40 injections into her buttocks, and the other paid $250 for 20 injections. J.D. Callaway, another spokesman for the Hillsborough County Sheriff's office, said Lindsay has been charged with two counts of practicing medicine without a license -- a third-degree felony that he said could carry a sentence of five years in jail.
Several calls to Lindsay's listed home phone number Wednesday revealed that the number had been disconnected.
Meanwhile, Andrea Lee, 30, and Zakiya Teagle Carswell, 33, both remain hospitalized at Tampa's Town and Country Hospital after suffering severe reactions to the shots they received at the hands of Lindsay on Jan. 29. Police declined to reveal which of the women received the greater number of injections.
Lee's mother, Doretha Belnavis, said her daughter began feeling ill about 3 a.m. the day after the injections. Belnavis said, her daughter was admitted to the hospital at about 7 a.m., and doctors treated her for life-threatening damage to her kidneys.
Belnavis told ABC News affiliate WFTS that her daughter paid $500 for the injections.
On Wednesday, Belnavis said Lee was showing signs of improvement. "She's recovering gradually," she said. "She's on dialysis, and we don't know if that is permanent or temporary."
Cosmetic Enhancement Gone Wrong
Dr. Rhoda Narins, a clinical professor of dermatology at the New York University School of Medicine, said reports of the organ damage that Lee and Carswell sustained suggest that Lindsay may have accidentally injected the silicone-saline mixture into a blood vessel. She added that such unfortunate cases are an all-too-common result of people seeking cosmetic enhancement at the hands of untrained professionals.
"I have treated patients who had horrible results with permanent disfigurement after injection in spas and homes of commercial grade silicone by unlicensed technicians," Narins said. "These unlicensed people inject large amounts of a substance that clearly says on its Web site that it is not to be injected into animals or humans.
"There have been deaths in Florida from commercial grade silicone with injection into blood vessels of large amounts of [this] product."
A Bigger Problem?
Another doctor who has seen his fair share of botched procedures performed by unlicensed practitioners is Dr. Julius Few, director of The Few Institute for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery and clinical associate at the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine. He said such cases are so prevalent that he and other medical professionals founded the Coalition for Injectable Safety to help educate the public.
"There is an underground culture for injection of ... industrial-grade silicone, vegetable oil and even baby oil," he said. "You can find how to self-inject on the Internet, according to a patient I once saw with a terrible deformity in the breast."
Plastic surgeon Dr. Darrick Antell agreed that such horror stories are in no short supply.
"I recall a patient I saw about 10 years ago who had something injected into her lips which made them overly large," he said. "I suggested that she return to the doctor who performed the procedure, whereupon she told me that the man was not actually a doctor at all... After I excised the material, the lab analyzed it and it was paraffin wax."
Worse, there are no signs of a slowdown in these risky jobs. Few said the lackluster economy could see many more unqualified individuals hoping to turn a quick buck by offering the unsafe injections. And companies that sell sub-standard products have even begun to target what most would consider legitimate doctors.
"We get faxes daily from labs offering to sell us these fake products at a very cheap price," Narins said.
While law enforcement agencies remain vigilant when it comes to unlicensed practitioners, doctors said that consumers must take it upon themselves to ensure that any cosmetic procedure they undergo is conducted by a plastic or cosmetic surgeon, a dermatologist, or another qualified medical professional.
"The most important part of getting a good result from plastic surgery is the surgeon you choose," Antell said. "Be sure the person treating you is a doctor, and look at the credentials to be sure that this individual is appropriately trained."
Narins agreed. "If a patient finds themselves in someone's home, a hotel room, a garage or a spa for a medical treatment, they are not in the right place no matter what the cost," she said. "Patients need to take some responsibility to keep themselves out of danger. These are injections into your body."
Belnavis said she hopes her daughter's case serves as a warning to others.
"I hope this educates the community and also people having these procedures of the side effects and everything that they can have doing these procedures," she said. "Going to someone who is unprofessional and unlicensed is committing suicide, because you don't know what you're getting. It's playing Russian roulette with your life."
Rana Senol contributed to this report.