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.
"I remember her telling me, it's not getting any better," Luna recalled. When Renteria called the clinic where she had the operation to complain, Luna said, she was told the discomfort was natural. "They said that's how it's going to feel."
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.
Luna saw her just before she slipped into a coma. "I saw the desperation on her face," she told me. "That said everything."
Renteria's death may finally prompt California's medical regulators to take a close look at the weight-loss surgeries marketed by an outfit called TopSurgeons through the 1-800-GET-THIN number.
The Medical Board of California informed Renteria's family July 27 that it was reviewing the medical care she had received from Dr. Atul Madan, who is identified by the coroner as her surgeon at a Beverly Hills clinic connected to the billboard campaign. The letter asked the family to release Renteria's medical records so the review could proceed. The case was referred to the medical board by the Los Angeles County coroner's office, which attributed Renteria's death to complications from her surgery.
This sort of scrutiny is overdue. Renteria's is the second death linked by a coroner's report to Lap-Band surgery performed at 9001 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 106, Beverly Hills. Willie Brooks Jr., a 35-year-old school custodian, died June 8, 2009, three days after his operation. In its report, the Riverside County coroner attributed the death to "peritonitis due to lap band procedure due to obesity." He weighed about 297 pounds.
The suite's history, which includes the revocation of its accreditation by a professional oversight body in 2009, has been detailed previously in this column. It also lost its Medicare certification last year after the federal government determined that conditions there posed "immediate jeopardy to the health and safety" of patients. The facility, then known as Almont Ambulatory Surgery Center, is now known as Beverly Hills Surgery Center and has been accredited by a different oversight body.
The Brooks family's lawsuit against TopSurgeons LLC, the Beverly Hills clinic, and his doctor, George Tashjian, is scheduled for trial next June. Tashjian has denied responsibility for Brooks' death.
The medical board's spokeswoman, Jennifer Simoes, said letters such as the one received by Renteria's family were a first step in any review. When I asked Madan for a comment last week he told me he would get back to me, but I'm still waiting.
The familiar 1-800-GET-THIN billboards have caught the attention of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health. The agency's director, Jonathan E. Fielding, has asked the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to investigate the ad campaign.
Fielding says he's concerned about the hazards of "medical complications and unrealistic expectations resulting from the misleading promotion" of the Lap-Band, a silicone ring surgically fitted over part of the stomach to discourage overeating.
The 1-800-GET-THIN ads "fail to provide the relevant warnings, precautions, side effects, and contra-indications related to the procedure," he wrote in his Dec. 7 letter to the FDA. That's troubling because the FDA is considering whether to expand the device's approved use beyond the extremely obese patients for whom it's currently permitted. The change could add 2 million people to the target market in L.A. County alone, Fielding said.
The billboards don't mention, he added, that the surgery is not appropriate "for the vast majority of individuals." He's especially ticked off about the billboards' declaring "Diets Fail! The Lap-Band Works!" That's because diets do work if you stick to them.
The people who have been behind this ad campaign and the clinic where Renteria and Brooks were operated on are brothers Julian and Michael Omidi. The California medical board revoked Julian's medical license last year, retroactive to 2007. The medical board placed Michael on three years' probation in 2008.
The Omidis have run their business under several names at various times, including TopSurgeons, Weight Loss Centers and Beverly Hills Surgery Center.