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Liposuction Deaths End Surgeon's Career

maria_shortall.jpg
USA Today

Editor's note: This article has been updated to correct several errors.

A Broward County physician who had two young women die from complications of his “minimally invasive” liposuction gave up his license to the Board of Medicine on Friday.

Dr. Alberto Sant Antonio agreed to surrender his license rather than face state disciplinary action for multiple errors that led to deaths at his unregistered cosmetic surgery office in Weston, state records show.

“It’s great news and a huge benefit to the people of the state and the community that he’s no longer going to practice medicine,” said Michael Freedland, a Weston attorney who represented the family of one Sant Antonio victim. “It’s offensive and scary that someone of his credentials and his history was allowed to continue seeing patients after what he did.”

In other action Friday, the board rejected a settlement with a well-known Tampa pain doctor, David VanDercar, saying it would prefer to see the health department seek suspension. That means negotiations continue.

Here are details of each case:

Dr. Alberto Sant Antonio

The state investigated the June 2011 death of Freedland’s client, Davie housekeeper and mother Maria Shortall, 38, who came to the doctor’s Alyne Medical Rejuvenation Institute to have fat sucked from her back and reinserted to enhance her buttocks. According to a state summary, Shortall died when Sant Antonio mistakenly injected the fat into a blood vessel, causing an embolism that blocked the blood flow and stopped her heart.

Another patient died after getting liposuction at the Alyne clinic in February 2010. Miami mother Kellee Lee-Howard, 32, was found dead at home the day after surgery from “poly-drug toxicity,” including excessive levels of the anesthetic lidocaine in her blood, an autopsy showed. The family sued Sant Antonio, claiming he did not measure the sedative and gave too much. The doctor and clinic paid a confidential settlement to end the case, said the family’s attorney, Philip Freidin.

Shortall’s family also filed suit against Sant Antonio and Alyne; it is still pending.

Sant Antonio, 60, advertised the cosmetic procedure as “minimally invasive” and minor, but the state Department of Health found that it was too complex to be done safely in his office, which was not registered or inspected. The office did not have emergency equipment, lifesaving drugs, properly trained staff and surgical assistance that the state requires for office surgery locations, the state complaint says.

In addition, Sant Antonio failed to monitor Shortall’s heart rate and vital signs, and neglected to quickly call paramedics when her heart stopped, the complaint says. Freedland said Sant Antonio testified during a deposition that he did not call 911 for seven to 10 minutes after her heart stopped. Shortall left behind a husband, daughter and son, who were 15 and 12 at the time.

After her death, the state halted Sant Antonio from performing surgery. But he continued seeing patients at the clinic, which is still open and offering cosmetic surgery under the name Elite Aesthetic Center. A manager who declined to give his name Wednesday said Sant Antonio had retired and was unavailable for comment; he said the clinic is now run by his business partner, physician's assistant Lynne Ulevich. Sant Antonio’s attorney, Ariel Sofro, could not be reached for comment.

“The state does not do a good job regulating doctors,” Freedland said. “We leave it to physicians to police themselves, and they do a bad job of it.”

Dr. David VanDercar

The Department of Health accused Dr. David H. VanDercar with over-prescribing narcotic pills each month for about two years to a patient who was an addict and who fed his habit by robbing drugstores. The complaint said the doctor failed to establish that the man’s pain was real, try other pain-relief methods or properly test him for drug abuse.

The patient’s mother, Laurie Eubanks, told the board that she blamed the physician for hooking her son Jeremy, 25, while treating him at Tampa Pain Clinic, which VanDercar ran. Her son, a UPS driver with back pain, is now serving a 32-year sentence for robbing pharmacies.

“He indiscriminately prescribed drugs to our son with no regard for the outcome,” Eubanks said. “I cannot fathom almost 400 pills being given at one time. He became an addict."

VanDercar has been outspoken on pain management issues in recent years when Florida was besieged by out-of-state drug dealers and addicts flooding pain clinics to obtain large quantities of narcotic pills, especially oxycodone. The doctor promoted his clinic as an example of one that properly screens patients and regulates their intake of drugs.

He told the board 20 percent of his patients take more drugs than Eubanks received, with no problems. Eubanks’ treatment was appropriate, he said.

“I did not see any signs of addiction from him,” VanDercar said.

He said he has sold his pain clinic and withdrawn from practicing medicine in order to undergo cancer surgery. He said he does not intend to resume practicing medicine.

State health officials and VanDercar had negotiated a deal to settle the case, with a $15,000 fine, a reprimand and a ban for life on prescribing controlled substances. Eubanks called the settlement “a slap on the wrist.”

“Dr. VanDercar will probably retire and feel no penalty. He’s being ordered to pay a fine that is minimal compared to the money he has made (at the pain clinic),” Eubanks said.

Board member Nabil El Sanadi, a Fort Lauderdale physician, persuaded the board to reject the settlement and seek a suspension for VanDercar until he undergoes a state review process. VanDercar declined to comment.

“It’s our job to protect the public,” El Sanadi. “We need to suspend these doctors and send the message that what they are doing is not OK.”

VanDercar was one in a series of pain doctors who came up for disciplinary cases. The board rejected three other settlement deals as too lenient, making counter-offers of suspensions and higher fines.  In such circumstances, doctors seldom accept the counter-offer, preferring instead to seek formal administrative hearings. The physicians were:

--Steven Lemberg of Boca Raton physician, who worked at Coastal Pain Management clinic.

--West Palm Beach gastroenterologist Lawrence Rothenberg, who worked part-time at a North Fort Myers pain clinic.

--Boca Raton neurologist Robert Schiftan.