By Terrence McCoy
By Allie Conti
By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
UPDATE: Strax Rejuvenation responded on its website after publication of this story and insisted discount prices do not translate to a lower standard of care. In March 2012 a 50-year-old grandmother named Idell Frazer became the fifth Strax patient to die in eight years. The doctor in that operation was John Nees, whose medical license had been suspended repeatedly. In April 2012 New Times Broward-Palm Beach reported that Strax CEO Jeffry Davis had a criminal record for financial crimes related to his former company.
For nearly 11 years, Osvaldo Vargas started his mornings by watching the woman he loved slip out of bed, drink Cuban coffee, and rummage through the closet for her favorite shoes. He felt her absence as soon as her skin was no longer next to his, when he could no longer glimpse the outline of her smile.
Vargas and his wife, Lidvian Zelaya, 35, had a life of simple routines. Zelaya was short, with soft curves and long tangles of dark hair. Originally from Nicaragua, she made a living selling watches at a store in Miami Beach. Vargas, 43, was gentle, with smooth, tan skin and a slight frame. He worked in construction, renovating hospitals and schools.
They met in 2000 through a friend, and Vargas was hooked immediately. Saturday nights, they went out to clubs, dancing salsa and merengue. Zelaya's hips moved deftly to the music; Vargas's hand was confident on the curve of her back. Sundays she asked him to cook for her — bistec and shrimp ceviche, a side of cocktails.
On a Monday morning — December 27, 2010 — Zelaya wasn't quite herself. She woke up early, took a shower, and drank her coffee but wasn't hungry for breakfast. "She was nervous," Vargas remembers. "I told her to take it easy."
Zelaya's most coveted Christmas gift had been a plastic surgery procedure known as a "Brazilian butt lift," a transfer of fat from her stomach, back, and sides to her rear end. She and Vargas had saved $4,600 for her surgery, to be performed at Strax Rejuvenation and Aesthetics Institute in Lauderhill.
The couple, who did not have children, drove their decade-old Ford Expedition north through the quiet, predawn highways for the 7 a.m. appointment. Vargas tried to help his wife stay calm. Vargas, who is from Guatemala and struggles with English, didn't know why his five-foot-three, 130-pound wife was so eager for the surgery.
"She was beautiful. Maybe she want to feel beautiful?" he says. "I agree with her whatever she want to do."
It was a question that would haunt him. Zelaya never came home from Strax. Her death brought unwanted media scrutiny to the plastic-surgery office that claims to be one of the busiest in the nation. Strax officials say they have helped revolutionize the industry by lowering prices and providing affordable access to surgical makeovers for legions of working-class people. But lately they have come under fire for the high volume of surgeries they perform — and because patients have died during or after treatment there.
Several Strax doctors have been disciplined by the state, and the surgeon who worked on Zelaya, Dr. Roger Gordon, had four patients in seven years who died after operations. The Sun-Sentinel reported that Strax had more recent deaths than any other doctor's office in Florida. Yet a closer look at each case shows that surgery can be fatal for many varied reasons. A death might not be the doctor's fault. Strax officials say their mortality rate is in line with the national average, and they have an explanation for every incident that occurs in their operating rooms.
"Strax Rejuvenation says thank you to South Florida for making them the largest cosmetic surgery facility in the entire U.S., with a phenomenal get-ready-for-summer special!" says a husky-voiced announcer on WRMF-FM (97.9). "Not only will Strax beat the lowest price by any board-certified surgeons, in addition, for the next two weeks, you can receive either an area of liposuction absolutely free or 50 percent off a second procedure when combined with any surgical procedures. Smart Lipo starts at $1,999. Breast augs under $3,000..."
Every day, these and other Strax ads flood the radio waves, on English- and Spanish-language stations. They broadcast a message of easily attainable beauty.
Keith Sims, a former Miami Dolphins offensive lineman, appears in a video on Strax's website extolling the virtues of lap band surgery. A silicone band was inserted around the top of his stomach to help him lose weight.
A muscular, solid, fit-looking Sims stands in what appears to be a doctor's office with framed degrees on the wall.
"I went to Strax Rejuvenation for a consultation," he says. "Two weeks later, I had the procedure. It was simple. I was home in a few hours... One week after that, I had lost 30 pounds. I had more energy than I've ever had, and I'm never hungry. Strax Lap Band has changed my life. Call them today; they will change yours."
Plastic surgery was once available only to the rich but has become more common as costs have dropped, procedures have become less invasive, and outpatient facilities such as Strax have made them affordable to the masses. For some, loans make the procedures even more affordable. Strax's website says, "patients may be pre-approved for financing with a low-interest monthly payment plan." Last year, 13.1 million cosmetic procedures were performed in this country, a 77 percent increase since 2000, according to the American Society for Plastic Surgeons.