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Doctoring the Web 

A plastic surgeon has positive online reviews. But not from that patient who died.

Wednesday, Sep 15 2010

Page 4 of 4

"This was done in a doctor's office, totally unequipped to handle an emergency," Aminy's attorney, Bruce Fagel, said in a recent interview. "There was no anesthesiologist, no resuscitative equipment in her office. She [Rajagopal] had to call 911. It was a mess all the way around."

On Oct. 7, 2007, the medical board accused Rajagopal of "unprofessional conduct through gross negligence with regard to her treatment of the patient." On April 4, 2009, in the midst of Rajagopal's online marketing success, the accusation against her was resolved. Rather than take her case to a hearing, she agreed that the medical board could establish a factual basis for the charges, and gave up her right to contest them. In exchange, state regulators placed her on probation for three years.

During those years, Rajagopal is required to do 40 hours of educational programs aimed at correcting her "areas of deficient practice or knowledge." She must take other courses and training programs, and must notify every hospital, physician's group, and malpractice insurer she was involved with of the board's findings. Rajagopal is also prohibited from supervising physician assistants. If she violates her probation, the board would have cause to revoke her license. Neither Rajagopal nor her lawyer responded to numerous requests for an interview.

In addition, three civil lawsuits against Rajagopal can be found in San Francisco Superior Court records, all involving the same type of claim. Patients say they received burns during laser hair removal in Rajagopal's office. Rajagopal denied wrongdoing in each of those cases.

Sharon V. got laser hair removal from one of Rajagopal's nurses back in 2001. Her neck was badly burned; two surgeries later, she still had a scar. "It was a huge horrible drama," she says. "I've been scarred for life on my neck, right in the middle of the front."

Chikako Ito sustained severe burns on her face, according to a legal complaint from 2004. The case was settled out of court. A third woman's case against Rajagopal was dismissed in 2007.

Sharon V. says she collected a $15,000 settlement, and used the money to open an art school for the disadvantaged in Mozambique. "I figured, you know what? I have extra cash now. I should do something good for someone else."

Sharon V. found Rajagopal, she remembers, through a search on the Internet. She was shocked to learn the story of Aminy and of the rampant positive reviews. "I definitely think she needs to get her license revoked," she says.

It is not common for a patient to die as a result of plastic surgery, according to a survey of more than a million procedures conducted by the American Society of Plastic Surgeons. The 2007 study found that out of every 100,000 office-based surgeries (as opposed to surgery in the hospital), about two resulted in a death. That's .002 percent. Most of the deaths were caused by the same complication: blood clots that resulted in pulmonary embolisms.

"The study shows that plastic surgery in accredited facilities is safe and that deaths are rare," says surgeon Geoffrey Keyes, the study's coauthor.

That may be true, but the Aminy family's lawyer, Fagel, cautions patients about the other risks of undergoing surgeries in doctor's offices. For instance, there's uncertainty in how much compensation is available when something does go wrong.

"We did an asset check, and [Rajagopal] didn't have very much," Fagel says. "She had a $1 million insurance policy, but for a victim that suffered a hypoxic brain injury, that was not very much." Injuries like the one Aminy suffered — which require constant medical attention for the remainder of a lifetime — bring settlements of between $6 and $9 million, he said.

Although Fagel could have forced Rajagopal out of business and into bankruptcy, it wouldn't have done much for his client, he said. It made more sense to take the $1 million. "In most cases, where there is adequate insurance, we can make a substantial difference to the family," he says. "This was one where we couldn't." He calls Rajagopal's probation from the medical board "a slap on the wrist."

With the money, Aminy's family placed her in a facility in Sacramento where the staff-to-patient ratio was extremely low, Fagel says. Yet things only got worse. "We had to watch her deteriorate," says one family member who asked to remain anonymous. "What happened was really hard on the family."

Aminy went through numerous operations, according to the family member. She had kidney failure and lung failure. There were many times when doctors were unsure whether she would make it through the night. More than two years after entering a coma, Aminy got pneumonia. On Aug. 11, 2007, she died, never having regained consciousness.

The family member was disturbed to learn about the praise of Rajagopal on the Internet, and angered about the concept of astroturfing, particularly when linked with medicine. "It's not like a hairstylist," she says. "People's lives are in their hands. ... Somebody else could die, too."

Looking back over the rave reviews of Rajagopal, there's one exchange on that may demonstrate the power of anonymous postings. Several users are relating their wonderful experiences with Rajagopal, and even urging others to travel from afar to see her. It was apparently enough to convince another user, "GPYY," that Rajagopal was the doctor for him.

"Thanks to the website and the support of this community, I finally decided to do something about my gyne," GPYY proudly announced. "I had my pre-op with Dr. Rajagopal yesterday and have a scheduled date of June 24th for the surgery...WISH ME LUCK!!!"

About The Author

Ashley Harrell


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