Story transcripts

The Beauty Trap

Friday, August 27, 2010

Reporter: Tara Brown
Producer: Danny Keens

Lauren James was the kind of girl who turned heads - twenty six years old with a gorgeous face and a great figure.

But she was convinced she could look even better, with a little help from the doctor's knife.

It was a deadly mistake.

Cosmetic surgery has become so commonplace that people forget that it comes with risks, just like any other operation. You just don't hear about the times when things go horribly wrong.

We should caution you that what you are about to see shows that increasing your cup size or smoothing out your thighs can be terribly disfiguring- but it can also be so much worse.

Full transcript:

STORY -

COLLIE JAMES, FATHER: That's a nice picture.

KATHERINE JAMES, MOTHER: Mmm, there she is.

TARA BROWN: 26-year-old Lauren James - Beautiful, fun-loving but, tragically, no longer here.

COLLIE JAMES: I wish you could have seen that, Simon.

SIMON DAL ZOTTO, BOYFRIEND: She told me about it.

COLLIE JAMES: They were good times.

TARA BROWN: For Lauren's boyfriend, Simon, and her parents, Collie and Katherine, snatches of home video and treasured photos show a young woman who seems flawless.

DAD: What a smile she had.

MUM: We miss her so much.

TARA BROWN: But Lauren couldn't see what the rest of the world could and, so, three years ago decided to have liposuction.

TARA BROWN: Why would someone like Lauren who looked to be so perfect, even consider having cosmetic surgery?

KATHERINE JAMES: You know, I've asked myself that a million times and, ah, you know I think everyone has some sort of insecurity, you know? I guess, for Lauren, it was her bum and her thighs. So I, think it was, you know, for whatever reason, felt like she needed to look better, but I thought she was perfect.

TARA BROWN: You're not damaging the ligament by doing that?

DR DARRYL HODGKINSON: No, because four or five times this week I've operated exactly in this area.

TARA BROWN: Just doesn't look that gentle, that's all.

DR DARRYL HODGKINSON: To get in, but then when you think about it, I made only a dot of an incision.

TARA BROWN: Liposuction is the vacuuming of excess fat and, as plastic surgeon Darryl Hodgkinson is happy to show, can be done from various parts of the body, including the neck.

DR DARRYL HODGKINSON: I would say the biggest problem that people could get into with this procedure would be to trivialise it and say you could do it under local anaesthetic.

TARA BROWN: Do people try to do that

?

DR DARRYL HODGKINSON: They do.

TARA BROWN: It may be one of the most popular cosmetic procedures of the last 30 years - and today's only takes 45 minutes - but liposuction is still a complicated and major surgery.

DR DARRYL HODGKINSON: Yes, they require a tremendous amount of prior understanding about tissues and anatomy and real - it's real surgery.

TARA BROWN: Did she have any idea how serious a procedure it was?

KATHERINE JAMES: I don't think so. Young girls just have no idea of the dangers associated with this particular type of surgery.

TARA BROWN: So, you were opposed to her having liposuction?

KATHERINE JAMES: Um, I was, and I said, "Darling, please don't do that, please - "people actually die from this," not knowing what those words really meant.

TARA BROWN: It was a Friday morning, three years ago. Lauren went to this clinic in Melbourne to have liposuction on her thighs - a half-day procedure that cost her $8,000 and so much more. What followed her discharge was a weekend of intense pain and bleeding, with no explanation from her doctors.

SIMON DAL ZOTTO: She just wanted to get rid of the pain. She wanted to know why she was still bleeding. She wanted to know why the blistering had become worse. She just wanted some answers, and so did I.

TARA BROWN: The slogan at Lauren's clinic was "sometimes Mother Nature could have done a better job" - a bit rich coming from the doctors who completely neglected Lauren following her surgery. As her pain increased over that weekend, they failed to return numerous phone calls asking for help, they never investigated the cause of Lauren's pain, and took a "wait and see" approach that ended with her death on Sunday night.

TARA BROWN: When you saw Lauren lying in the hallway there, facedown, did you think she would die there?

SIMON DAL ZOTTO: No. No, it just didn't seem real. Didn't. Certainly, it was the furtherest thing from my mind.

COLLIE JAMES: You can't believe the feeling. It was just unbelievable that that could have happened, and it was very difficult.

TARA BROWN: You were warning warning about deaths from liposuction 10 years ago, was that the case?

PROF. MERRILYN WALTON: That's right. You can be a GP who goes to a weekend course in liposuction and then advertise yourself and do it. There is nothing to stop you.

TARA BROWN: Professor Merrilyn Walton conducted a major inquiry into cosmetic surgery. What she found was the booming industry in Australia is one of the least regulated in the world.

PROF. MERRILYN WALTON: The problem with cosmetic surgery are the words we use. I mean, if you look the magazines they talk about 'tummy tuck' and people talk about it and they say, "I'm having a facelift", as if somehow that is a simple thing - you just lift the face. But that involves cutting the skin, removing tissues, cells, reconstructing faces, and all of those procedures bring a serious risk of infection.

TARA BROWN: At 35, after having five children, Kerry Mullins thought cosmetic surgery was the quick-fix she needed to get her body back in shape.

KERRY MULLINS: I didn't want to ever be a supermodel or completely change the way I was. Just to feel like a woman again, you know, like a normal woman again. That's all I wanted.

TARA BROWN: Kerry Mullins went to see plastic surgeon Morris Ritz, here, at the Melbourne Institute of Plastic Surgery. She wanted a breast lift and tummy tuck. He sold her what is known in the industry as a 'mum's makeover' - a $25,000 package, which included a breast lift, extensive liposuction and a tummy tuck. A three-in-one operation, which took eight hours to complete, and nearly cost Kerry her life.

KERRY MULLINS: I just remember closing my eyes and then, the next time I woke up, I woke up to a nurse holding my breast and prodding me and Mr Ritz then came in and he was stabbing my nipple with a needle to try and get it to - sorry, can I stop for a minute?

TARA BROWN: A massive infection was ravaging Kerry's body, and she was rushed into emergency hospital care.

KERRY MULLINS: I was in there for three months, and each and every other day they'd take me down to theatre and so I had 22 operations all up, and every second day they would cut it away, cut it away, cut it away until it was just a big hole in my chest.

TARA BROWN: How were you coping, mentally?

KERRY MULLINS: Um, all I kept thinking was I just want to live. There was a couple of times I didn't want to wake up, but I was in so much pain and I did looked so disfigured that I didn't want to wake up.

TARA BROWN: So are you prepared to show us what has happened to you? Four years on, a brave Kerry wants the world to see what was done to her.

KERRY MULLINS: That is my right breast, and that is my left breast and they are the scars I'm left with.

TARA BROWN: This is not easy for you, is it?

KERRY MULLINS: No, it isn't, it isn't, but I just want women to be aware that is they're going to consider having plastic surgery that they look and have a look at me and see what the outcome can be, and this is what you can end up looking like.

TARA BROWN: How do you feel about your body today?

KERRY MULLINS: Um, like a freak. I'm disgusted. Even when I wash myself, I feel disgusted that I even have to even wash that area and touch that area.

TARA BROWN: Do you think you'll ever lose that feeling?

KERRY MULLINS: No, never, never ever.

PROF. MERRILYN WALTON: The whole way cosmetic surgery is geared is towards maximising the benefits, so to encourage people to come and have it because the risks are minimal, and I think it's really got nothing to do with the Hippocratic oath, for example, of 'do no harm'. So, to me, it's an industry that has developed in health care which has nothing to do with health care.

TARA BROWN: Lauren James is dead today because of a massive infection because the doctors she put her trust in failed to look after her properly. A recent coroner's inquest into Lauren's death found the clinic failed in its obligation to provide adequate post-operative care. In particular, Lauren's surgeon, Dr Tam Dieu, was criticised for disturbing behaviour. All the expert witnesses said Lauren's death was preventable if she'd been treated even up until an hour before she died, at 10 o'clock that Sunday night.

TARA BROWN: To hear those words that your daughter's death was preventable if the clinic had done the right thing, what was that like?

COLLIE JAMES: Well, it - it's a feeling of emptiness.

KATHERINE JAMES: They had so many opportunities to save her life, and I think the hardest thing for me was to hear this stated over and over again.

TARA BROWN: The coroner has referred Lauren's case to the Australian Health Practitioners Regulation Agency, and her boyfriend, Simon, is now suing the clinic.

SIMON DAL ZOTTO: Someone needs to be responsible for what happened. I just want to get some answers.

TARA BROWN: Are there any answers really that will satisfy you?

SIMON DAL ZOTTO: No, no. No, nothing will change what happened that night, nothing will take away the pain I feel every day, and nothing will bring Lauren back.

TARA BROWN: Kerry Mullins says her kids won't let her have reconstructive surgery - they're too scared of what might happen to their mum. As for her doctor, she may have settled out of court with him, but that doesn't stop Kerry warning others that cosmetic surgery can be the ugliest cut of all.

KERRY MULLINS: I'm more fortunate than Lauren. Lauren didn't survive to tell her story, I did, you know. These are the outcomes, and this is what CAN happen, and my life is ruined because of it.

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