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Michael Hiltzik: A death and the lap-band

April 17, 2010 | 11:05 am

Is there any area of commerce where regulation is more critically important than healthcare?

Whether tighter oversight of the surgical clinic where Willie Brooks Jr. got his lap-band surgery would have prevented his death is impossible to say. But it wouldn't hurt.

This is my third column about the sponsors of the ubiquitous 1-800-GET-THIN billboard campaign sponsored by the Omidis and their business, Top Surgeons. As they roll out new advertising campaigns, the list grows longer of public documents I think people might be interested in reading while pondering their surgery options.

Here's an updated collection:

The Brooks family's lawsuit against Top Surgeons filed by Encino attorney Bruce A. Wernik, alleging medical malpractice and wrongful death.

The license revocation action filed by the California Medical Board against Willie Brooks' doctor, George Tashjian. 

The medical board's revocation of the license of Julian Omidi, one of Top Surgeons' principals, and the medical board's probation order against Michael Omidi, Julian's brother and one of Top Surgeons' principals.

The May 7, 2009, inspection report on Almont Ambulatory Surgery Center, the Top Surgeons facility where Brooks had his lap-band operation, and the June 4, 2009, letter from the federal government terminating its participation in Medicare and Medicaid.

To provide perspective on Top Surgeons' claims that the facility is now operated by Beverly Hills Surgery Center, a "completely separate entity" from Almont, here are Almont's corporate filing with Los Angeles County identifying Julian Omidi as its "president," and Beverly Hills Surgery's corporate filing with the State of California, showing Julian Omidi as "chief executive."

Finally, here are my two previous columns on Top Surgeons, which appeared February 14 and March 4.

The latest column starts below.

Willie Brooks Jr. was a 35-year-old substitute custodial worker for the Pomona school district when he decided to do something about his weight last year.

The 6-foot-6 Brooks tipped the scale at nearly 300 pounds. He thought he would be in line for a permanent position if he lost a few pounds. So when he noticed the advertising campaign suggesting he find out about weight loss surgery by calling 1-800-GET-SLIM, he followed up.

Brooks had surgery to implant a lap-band -- a silicone ring fitted around the upper stomach to suppress appetite -- last June 5 at a surgical facility in Beverly Hills operated by Top Surgeons, the sponsor of those 1-800-GET-THIN and 1-800-GET-SLIM billboards that have become as inescapable on Southern California freeways as smog in summer. He was sent home to Perris with a prescription for oxycodone painkiller and instructions to return in a week.

Three days later, Brooks was dead. At the autopsy, a Riverside County coroner found stomach contents leaking around the edges of the lap-band and more than a liter of pus in his abdomen. On her report she listed the cause of death as "peritonitis due to lap-band procedure due to obesity."

Read the whole column.

-- Michael Hiltzik

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