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Another patient dies after Lap-Band surgery

Paula Rojeski, 55, of Orange County died shortly after undergoing Lap-Band surgery at a clinic affiliated with the 1-800-GET-THIN ad campaign, according to records. The coroner has not determined the cause of death.

September 23, 2011|By Stuart Pfeifer | Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
  • Paramedics rushed Paula Rojeski on Sept. 8 from Valley Surgical Center to a nearby hospital, where she was pronounced dead.
Paramedics rushed Paula Rojeski on Sept. 8 from Valley Surgical Center… (Marni Rader )

An Orange County woman has died after weight-loss surgery at a West Hills outpatient clinic, the fifth person to die shortly after Lap-Band procedures at clinics affiliated with the 1-800-GET-THIN advertising campaign since 2009, according to lawsuits, coroner's records and interviews.

Paramedics rushed Paula Rojeski on Sept. 8 from Valley Surgical Center to a nearby hospital, where she was pronounced dead, said Los Angeles County Assistant Chief Coroner Ed Winter. The coroner's office performed an autopsy but has not yet determined how she died.

Rojeski, 55, was the second Lap-Band patient to die after surgeries at the West Hills facility on Woodlake Avenue, which has used multiple names, most recently Valley Surgical Center. Three patients have died after procedures at another clinic on Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills, which also has used numerous names including Beverly Hills Surgery Center.

Both locations receive referrals from 1-800-GET-THIN, which sends prospective weight-loss patients to outpatient clinics that perform Lap-Band surgeries in Southern California. The ads have attracted criticism, including from the device's manufacturer, about underplaying of risks associated with the procedure.

1-800-GET-THIN, the ubiquitous marketing campaign seen on billboards, television and the Internet, has led to a surge of Lap-Band weight-loss surgeries in Southern California. More than 100,000 people called 1-800-GET-THIN in its first 15 months of business, leading to more than 10,000 scheduled surgeries, the marketing company said in a trademark lawsuit. (It filed the suit against an attorney who had set up a website to attract former patients as clients.)

The Lap-Band, manufactured by Irvine-based Allergan Inc., is a silicone ring that is surgically implanted around the stomach to discourage overeating. The surgeries vary in cost -- ranging from $12,000 to about $20,000 by some accounts -- and often are covered by insurance.

The patients' deaths and injuries have led to a series of wrongful-death and personal injury lawsuits against 1-800-GET-THIN, its affiliated surgery centers and doctors who performed the procedures. Allergan is not affiliated with 1-800-GET-THIN.

Another lawsuit, seeking class-action status, accuses 1-800-GET-THIN of false advertising, saying the ads failed to provide adequate warnings about the risks of the surgery. Wrongful death lawsuits allege that two brothers, Julian and Michael Omidi, were part of a "joint venture" that included the surgery centers and the 1-800-GET-THIN marketing firm.

Both Omidis have been disciplined by the state medical board over issues unrelated to 1-800-GET-THIN, according to state records.

Rojeski, a Ladera Ranch resident who loved dogs and worked as a buyer for an aerospace firm, had told friends and family that she was looking forward to the Lap-Band surgery. One friend described Rojeski as being thrilled ahead of what she hoped would be a life-changing procedure.

"I had just talked to Paula the night before. She was really excited, really happy. She told me, 'I'm going to be skinny!'" said Rojeski's longtime friend Marni Rader.

Friends said they thought that Rojeski was not significantly overweight -- her California driver's license listed her as 5 foot 5 and 160 pounds -- and that the surgery was unnecessary. Rader estimated that Rojeski weighed 180 pounds.

"I was a supportive friend, but I didn't think she needed it," Rader said. "I don't understand why it would be worth the risk for 20 or 30 pounds."

Rader said she and Rojeski met more than 10 years ago at a dog park in Orange County and had been friends ever since.

"She was never married. She never had kids. Her dogs were her kids," Rader said. "That was her happiest moment, in the park with her dogs. She loved her dogs as much as she loved her family and friends."

Dr. Michael Omidi, listed in a government filing as owner of the outpatient center at which Rojeski had her surgery, did not return a telephone call seeking comment about Rojeski's death. Instead, attorney Robert Silverman sent an email statement to The Times that he said Omidi had authorized.

"Any loss of life is tragic and our hearts and prayers go out to the family and loved ones," the statement said. "The surgery center you are discussing is fully accredited by a prestigious organization. It is my understanding that the center is conducting a full investigation of the events that transpired. Any reporting on this matter is premature."

1-800-GET-THIN and the Omidi brothers have filed a series of lawsuits against The Times, its journalists and website commenters over past coverage of the surgery deaths. Judges have dismissed three of the lawsuits and ordered the plaintiffs to pay The Times' legal expenses and fees in two of the cases.

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