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Liposuction Blamed In Five Deaths

May 12, 1999 | CNN
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A new study documenting five deaths from liposuction has raised questions about the safety of the elective surgery to reduce fat.

Liposuction is the most common cosmetic surgery in the United States. The number of people undergoing the medical procedure has increased 216 percent since 1992. As the practice has increased, so have rumors of complications and deaths.

Tammaria Cotton, 43, had snapshots taken right before she underwent liposuction.

"She told me that she wanted me to take pictures of her because this would be the last time that we would see her like that," said her husband, Jimmy Cotton.

Cotton died later that day in the emergency room. Death records indicate she died from an overload of fluid used to deliver anesthesia.

Anesthetic solution may be to blame

Another liposuction patient, Judy Fernandez, 47, had a different doctor but the same outcome. Death records show her cause of death to be complications of liposuction and cosmetic surgery.

"What I saw was really a horrifying scene," said Ruben Fernandez. "My wife was spread open on the operating table still; she never made it out of the room; her extremities were swollen almost twice her size."

Both women were from California and had a type of liposuction known as "tumescent" in which the patient is infused with an anesthetic solution containing lidocaine.

Researchers from New York City Poison Control looked at 48,527 New York City death records and concluded four deaths were associated with tumescent liposuction over a period from 1993 to 1998. The fifth was found in an unidentified state.

"We have no conclusive proof these patients died of lidocaine toxicity, but the evidence is compelling that this is a possible contributor because we tried to look for other reasons that they died," said Dr. Rama Rao, the study's author.

No national reporting system

It's tough to gauge the extent of the problem because there is no mandatory or central reporting system in place to collect information on cosmetic surgery deaths and complications. There have been anecdotal reports linking liposuction to complications and deaths.

A national survey conducted by a medical malpractice firm linked 60 deaths to liposuction in 1997. More than 200,000 liposuction procedures are done each year in the United States.

"We need to put this in proper prospective," said Dr. Peter Foder of the Lipoplasty Society of North America. "These complications are very, very rare as long as the surgery is performed by a competent surgeon in a properly selected patient in a competent facility."

The study's authors say patients need to be aware of the risks when evaluating whether to have the surgery.
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