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Irresponsible marketing for Lap-Bands may have deadly consequences

Irresponsible marketing for Lap-Bands may have deadly consequences

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UPDATE: The family of a fourth patient who died following a Lap-Band surgery has sued Dr. George Tashjian and a clinic affiliated with the 1-800-GET-THIN campaign. Stuart Pfeifer at the Los Angeles Times has the story.

The consequences can be severe when clinics lure patients by setting up "1-800" numbers and offering free seminars seven days a week to extol the virtues of Lap-Band surgery, all while telling patients that "Dieting Sucks" or "Diets Fail."

Most overweight people are not good candidates for Lap-Band surgery. It was approved by the FDA for people with chronic and severe weight problems. As I explained on Wednesday, the company that makes the Lap-Band, Allergan, says that people should have a body-mass index (BMI) of 40 or higher or should be at least 100 pounds heavier than their ideal weight. Most of us have a few pounds we would like to use, but a surgical intervention, with real risks of complications and death, is not the answer for most of us.

As Michael Hiltzik and Stuart Pfeifer at the Los Angeles Times have revealed over the past few months, some of the patients who have been seduced by these irresponsible marketing campaigns are now dead as a result.

Three patients have died after weight-loss surgeries at one clinic alone, which has gone by multiple names, including Almont Ambulatory Surgery Center, Beverly Hills Surgery and New Life Surgery Center.

The most recent death happened in December. As Pfeifer wrote last week:

Tamara Walter, 52, went into cardiac arrest Dec. 23 after surgery at a Beverly Hills clinic and was rushed to nearby Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, where she died three days later, said her sister, Betty Brown. The Beverly Hills Surgery Center is one of several clinics that receives referrals from patients who call a toll-free number, 1-800-GET-THIN, advertised on billboards throughout Southern California.Those billboards, as well as television spots, had attracted Walter, who was 5-feet-2 and about 240 pounds and had struggled for years to lose weight, said the woman's longtime friend, Patti DenBesten."They did free insurance checks. They made it sound very easy," DenBesten said. "I said, 'You should call. Go for it.' She had tried diets, but no matter what she did she couldn't lose the weight."The Beverly Hills Surgery Center so far has refused to provide Walter's family with records about her treatment, said Kathryn Trepinski, an attorney representing Walter's family.

Earlier in 2010, on Feb. 14, Ana Renteria died following Lap-Band surgery at the same clinic. Hiltzik wrote:

The tragedy of Ana Renteria's life was in the way it ended: her body ravaged by infection 10 days after she had the Lap-Band weight-loss operation advertised on those billboards and radio spots bearing the phone number 1-800-GET-THIN. Renteria, who had long struggled with her 240-pound frame, had been in almost constant pain ever since the operation, says her sister, Noemi Luna. Five days after the Lap-Band operation, the 33-year-old office worker awoke gasping for breath, according to Luna and the Los Angeles coroner's report on Renteria's death. At Lakewood Regional Medical Center she repeatedly went into cardiac arrest, the coroner's report states. She died shortly after midnight last Feb. 14, while friends and family members filled a hospital waiting room and prayed for a miracle.

And in June 2009, Willie Brooks Jr. died at the same clinic. Hiltzik wrote:

Willie Brooks Jr. was a 35-year-old substitute custodial worker for the Pomona school district when he decided to do something about his weight last year.  The 6-foot-6 Brooks tipped the scale at nearly 300 pounds. He thought he would be in line for a permanent position if he lost a few pounds. So when he noticed the advertising campaign suggesting he find out about weight loss surgery by calling 1-800-GET-SLIM, he followed up. Brooks had surgery to implant a lap-band -- a silicone ring fitted around the upper stomach to suppress appetite -- last June 5 at a surgical facility in Beverly Hills operated by Top Surgeons, the sponsor of those 1-800-GET-THIN and 1-800-GET-SLIM billboards that have become as inescapable on Southern California freeways as smog in summer. He was sent home to Perris with a prescription for oxycodone painkiller and instructions to return in a week.  Three days later, Brooks was dead. At the autopsy, a Riverside County coroner found stomach contents leaking around the edges of the lap-band and more than a liter of pus in his abdomen. On her report she listed the cause of death as "peritonitis due to lap-band procedure due to obesity."

Dr. Atul Madan, the doctor who performed the Lap-Band surgeries on Walter and Renteria, is under investigation by the Medical Board of California. The medical board's case against Brooks' doctor, Dr. George Tashjian, for other surgeries that the board says led to patients' deaths, is proceeding slowly.  Brooks' family has filed suit against Tashjian.

Next: Controversy comes at a bad time for Lap-Band maker looking to expand market

Photo credit: Natalie Woo via Flickr

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