After an illegal cosmetic surgery left a Las Vegas woman dead last year, Nevada state officials have begun to take action against the practice of unlicensed medicine within the state’s growing immigrant population.
Last spring, two supposed doctors from Colombia visited Las Vegas and began performing cosmetic procedures. A 42-year old woman named Elena Caro, who herself was from Colombia, went to them on April 9, 2011 for a buttocks lift.
“The family’s understanding was that they were both doctors, whether or not they thought about them being licensed,” said Michaela Tramel, a lawyer representing Caro’s daughter. Caro had shared her plans to get the surgery with her teenage daughter, but had kept the information from other relatives.
“I think that was just assumed that they were licensed,” Tramel said.
In fact, the supposed doctors weren’t licensed or properly trained. Ruben Dario Matallana-Galvas did homeopathic medicine in Colombia, while Carmen Olfidia Torres-Sanchez, his wife, was a lawyer. And their operating room turned out to be the back room of a tile shop.
“They had injected Elena with something that she had an allergic reaction to and she became unconscious,” recounted Tramel. Later analysis revealed it was the anesthesia that prompted Caro’s reaction.
Caro died before she could get medical help.
The incident shocked many across the state, and shed light on the problem of back-room surgeries. It also revealed a whole spectrum of underground medical procedures and illegal medications available within the immigrant community.
“We are not really certain of how large it truly is,” admitted Drew Bradley, the outreach director of the Latino Research Center at the University of Nevada, Reno and the coordinator of the new awareness campaign. “But we believe from the research we have done that the problem is significant, both in the state of Nevada, and nationwide.”
A grant from the state Attorney General’s office is funding the awareness campaign. It’s titled: ‘Say No to Underground Doctors!’ or ‘¡No a Los Medicos Clandestinos!’
The campaign, which is expected to launch this spring, will include radio announcements, TV spots, and brochures, as well as a list of recommended clinics.
“We are going to be outlining how people can detect a qualified physician,” Bradley said. “Because, unfortunately, it is not as easy as you or I might think.”
In addition, a new taskforce, headed by former state Attorney General Frankie Sue del Papa, intends to propose a state action plan for cracking down on unlicensed medicine. One outcome will likely be proposed changes to state statutes to make it easier to punish fake doctors.
Atzimba Luna, who works at the Mexican consulate in Las Vegas, welcomed these efforts. She says the consulate has received a growing number of reports about unlicensed medicine.
Luna pointed out that to solve the problem, the initiative must address why immigrants are seeking out these unlicensed providers in the first place.
“Language barriers, not knowing how to navigate the medical system here in the U.S.,” Luna offered as some of the drivers.
There is also the recession, and the fact that affordable healthcare may be out of reach for some immigrant families, she said.
“Many people who used to have insurance, they have been laid out [sic], they have been left without insurance,” Luna said, referring to Nevada’s persistent high unemployment, which is particularly high among Latinos. “And they think that there are not affordable options within the formal medical system.”
Those patients may wind up at certain stores known as botanicas. They sell herbal medicine, candles and religious relics. But some are known to also peddle in the back medical procedures and medications that require a prescription.
Nohemi Perez runs a botanica in the eastern part of Las Vegas, but says she just sticks to religious items and herbs.
Still, she says clients come in daily looking for dentists, doctors, antibiotics and medicine without a prescription.
“This is an epidemic,” Perez said in Spanish about unlicensed medicine. “This isn’t just happening in one place. It’s happening more than you would believe. We need to educate our community.”
Meanwhile, in February, another alleged fake doctor, Juan Alberto Ruan-Rivera, was arrested here. He is accused of sedating patients and sexually assaulting them while they were unconscious. He falsely claimed to be a licensed doctor in Mexico.
That case followed the September arrest of Edgar Orozco-Abundis in Sparks, Nevada for allegedly performing cosmetic surgeries without a license. His trial is pending.
The couple who caused Caro’s death was apprehended by Las Vegas police as they were trying to flee the country right after Caro’s death. They pleaded guilty in October to four felony charges, including involuntary manslaughter. They are now each serving four to eight-year prison sentences.
Caro’s daughter, represented by Tramel, has a pending wrongful death suit against the couple, the owners of the tile store, and the beauty salon workers that referred Caro to the unlicensed surgeons. Caro’s husband has also filed a separate suit.