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New Investigation Into Plastic Surgery Deaths Spotlights One Miami Business

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

South Florida has long been an international hotspot for plastic surgery. But it's also been plagued by issues around safety. According to a new  USA Today investigation, there were eight deaths in Miami related to surgeries from one plastic surgery business over the course of six years. Although the business has changed its name multiple times, it continues to be run by the same man, Dr. Ismael Labrador. 

USA Today reporter Michael Sallah spoke with customers, victims' family members and doctors to better understand how many of the clinics in South Florida operate. Often, the doctors responsible for highly dangerous procedures were not board certified, he found.

One of the most popular operations in South Florida, the Brazilian butt lift, has an average of one death per every 3,000.

We spoke with Sallah about the investigation, tactics used to find customers out-of-state and how consumers can be smart about where to get procedures. 

WLRN: What was the catalyst for doing this investigation?

SALLAH: We were noticing the numbers of deaths that were being reported. We wanted to step back and kind of look at what was behind these clinics and what we found was this is one of about 15 ... "factory clinics." They do multiple surgeries every day, most of the doctors are not board certified and most of the patients come in from out-of-state. These are national facilities. Essentially they're bringing people from all over the country and we thought this was a good time to do a deep dive and see what's behind these entities and how they work.

Why is Miami the hotspot for plastic surgeries?

I think part of it is you're dealing with a state government that doesn't provide very aggressive oversight. And you're in Miami, you know 'body beautiful.' That's the culture. So it's going to breed a lot of plastic surgery and it's always had a long tradition there. But these new facilities are driven largely by social media. They have found a niche down there where they can operate without a lot of oversight and with the combination of discount prices, social media and the real popularity of what they call the "Brazilian butt lift." It's a very popular procedure. So these very savvy marketing entities are now going out and advertising across the country and Miami has become kind of the hotspot. Also you can practice here without medical malpractice insurance. It's almost the perfect storm and it's allowed these entities to thrive and to grow and they're not slowing down in the investigation.

You found a series of clinics run by this one specific person. Eight patients died over six years. Do you see this as a fundamental systemic problem across this industry or is it just about a few bad actors like this doctor?

There are about a dozen to 15. The reason why we profile [Dr. Labrador's] clinic to start with was because he had the highest number of deaths. There are other facilities that have had deaths and multiple untold injuries. So all of these places are dangerous because of the high volume of surgeries they do and by doctors that are not board certified. But to kind of categorize it as just a few bad apples doesn't quite capture the measure of the breadth and scope of these businesses.

They are literally servicing tens of thousands of patients every year ... flying in from all over the country. And this one particular entity we found -- we did a study of the business model and found that after one or two deaths they would change [the clinic's] name ... they would change the corporate structure, they bring in other presidents of the company but it was always one person behind it, Dr. Labrador. And by changing the names they can make sure that it was more difficult.

Copyright 2020 WLRN 91.3 FM. To see more, visit WLRN 91.3 FM.

Alejandra Martinez is the associate producer for WLRN&rsquo's Sundial. Her love for radio started at her mother’s beauty shop where she noticed that stories are all around her - important stories to tell.
Chris Remington knew he wanted to work in public radio beginning in middle school, as WHYY played in his car rides to and from school in New Jersey. He’s freelanced for All Things Considered and was a desk associate for CBS Radio News in New York City. Most recently, he was producing for Capital Public Radio’s Insight booking guests, conducting research and leading special projects at Sacramento’s NPR affiliate.