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Lap-Band 911 recording is released

As a patient was dying, a clinic worker who phoned for help initially misidentified her age and gender.

November 03, 2011|By Stuart Pfeifer, Los Angeles Times
  • When paramedics arrived at the surgery center, they found Paula Rojeski unconscious, not breathing and without a pulse, said Dr. Marc Eckstein, medical director for the Los Angeles Fire Department.
When paramedics arrived at the surgery center, they found Paula Rojeski… (Marni Rader )

A 55-year-old Orange County woman who died after Lap-Band weight-loss surgery at a San Fernando Valley clinic was initially identified as a man "less than 40" in the 911 emergency call placed by a clinic employee, according to a newly released recording of the call.

Paula Rojeski, a Ladera Ranch resident, had Lap-Band surgery Sept. 8 at Valley Surgical Center in West Hills. After the surgery, an employee of the clinic called 911 to request emergency medical personnel.

"There is someone in Lap-Band surgery and I think he's crashing," the clinic employee said to the 911 operator, according to a copy of the recorded call obtained by The Times. "The nurse came out and told me to just call you, 911. I'm at the front desk."

The clinic employee was not immediately able to say whether the patient was conscious or breathing, the recording shows. At the request of the operator, the unidentified employee went into the treatment room to get more details about Rojeski's condition from medical staff.

At that point, the employee reported that the patient was female and relayed information that the 911 dispatcher requested.

"Is she awake? No," the employee said. "Is she breathing? No."

The operator responded: "OK, paramedics are on the way."

When paramedics arrived at the surgery center, they found Rojeski unconscious, not breathing and without a pulse, said Dr. Marc Eckstein, medical director for the Los Angeles Fire Department. They weren't able to resuscitate her, he said.

Paramedics brought Rojeski to a nearby hospital, where she was pronounced dead.

Listen to the 911 audio --> Eckstein said it would have been ideal for the surgery center to have someone with knowledge about Rojeski's condition make the 911 call. But he said paramedics were dispatched immediately after learning about the patient in distress.

"I don't believe there was any significant delay," he said. "It was obvious this was a patient in severe distress."

The coroner's office performed an autopsy but has not yet determined a cause of death, said Ed Winter, Los Angeles County's assistant chief coroner. The coroner's office won't make a conclusion until it obtains results of several tests, Winter said.

Rojeski was the fifth person to die within days after undergoing Lap-Band procedures at clinics affiliated with the 1-800-GET-THIN advertisements on Southern California freeway billboards, television, radio and the Internet, according to coroner's reports, lawsuits and interviews.

Dr. Michael Omidi, who has been listed on public records as the owner of the West Hills surgery center, did not respond to a request for comment.

Instead, an attorney who said he represents Omidi and the 1-800-GET-THIN marketing company wrote to The Times and said Omidi doesn't know anything about Rojeski's treatment.

"Michael Omidi had no involvement with the care or treatment of Ms. Rojeski," attorney Konrad Trope said in an email to The Times. "Dr. Omidi has no knowledge or information pertaining to this matter."

In a news release, 1-800-GET-THIN distanced itself from the latest Lap-Band death, saying it does not provide medical care and "did not refer Ms. Rojeski for surgery."

Nonetheless, two attorneys who have represented 1-800-GET-THIN, Robert Silverman and Brian Oxman, showed up at a memorial service for Rojeski, her friends said. Oxman, in an email to The Times, said he went to the service to show his respect and because his family was acquainted with Rojeski's family.

According to lawsuits and public records, four other patients have died after Lap-Band procedures at West Hills and Beverly Hills clinics affiliated with the 1-800-GET-THIN ad campaign.

Willie Brooks, 35, of Perris died June 8, 2009, three days after Lap-Band surgery at the Beverly Hills clinic. An autopsy report listed peritonitis, inflammation of the lining of the abdominal cavity and obesity as contributing factors to his death.

Ana Renteria, 33, died Feb. 14, 2010, 10 days after surgery at the Beverly Hills clinic. An autopsy report listed peritonitis as a contributing factor in her death.

Laura Faitro, 50, died July 26, 2010, five days after surgery at the West Hills clinic. An autopsy noted that Faitro's liver was lacerated and that 3 liters of bloody fluid were found in her abdominal cavity.

Tamara Walter, 52, died Dec. 26, 2010, three days after surgery at the Beverly Hills clinic. A coroner's report faulted the anesthesiologist involved in the surgery, classifying the cause of death as "accident due to suboptimal anesthesia care."

Relatives of each of the four dead patients filed wrongful-death lawsuits against the surgery centers and doctors involved in the surgeries. Three of the lawsuits listed 1-800-GET-THIN as a defendant. Attorneys for 1-800-GET-THIN and the surgery centers denied wrongdoing. A lawyer who represents 1-800-GET-THIN said the company was not formed until 2010, making it impossible for Brooks to have called that number before his death.

After Rojeski's death, the 1-800-GET-THIN marketing company said in a news release that the woman appeared to be a suitable candidate for the surgery. She "was appropriately cleared for surgery by multiple independent physicians," the news release said.

In addition, the company said, it "has been informed by the surgery center that all surgical protocols were followed and that there were no deficiencies in the systems and processes of the surgery center."

The Lap-Band, manufactured by Irvine-based Allergan Inc., is a silicone ring that is surgically implanted around the stomach to discourage overeating.

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