An Orange County woman has died after weight-loss surgery at a West Hills outpatient clinic, the fifth person to die shortly after Lap-Band procedures at clinics affiliated with the 1-800-GET-THIN advertising campaign since 2009, according to lawsuits, coroner's records and interviews.
Paramedics rushed Paula Rojeski on Sept. 8 from Valley Surgical Center to a nearby hospital, where she was pronounced dead, said Los Angeles County Assistant Chief Coroner Ed Winter. The coroner's office performed an autopsy but has not yet determined how she died.
Both locations receive referrals from 1-800-GET-THIN, which sends prospective weight-loss patients to outpatient clinics that perform Lap-Band surgeries in Southern California. The ads have attracted criticism, including from the device's manufacturer, about underplaying of risks associated with the procedure.
1-800-GET-THIN, the ubiquitous marketing campaign seen on billboards, television and the Internet, has led to a surge of Lap-Band weight-loss surgeries in Southern California. More than 100,000 people called 1-800-GET-THIN in its first 15 months of business, leading to more than 10,000 scheduled surgeries, the marketing company said in a trademark lawsuit. (It filed the suit against an attorney who had set up a website to attract former patients as clients.)
The Lap-Band, manufactured by Irvine-based Allergan Inc., is a silicone ring that is surgically implanted around the stomach to discourage overeating. The surgeries vary in cost -- ranging from $12,000 to about $20,000 by some accounts -- and often are covered by insurance.
The patients' deaths and injuries have led to a series of wrongful-death and personal injury lawsuits against 1-800-GET-THIN, its affiliated surgery centers and doctors who performed the procedures. Allergan is not affiliated with 1-800-GET-THIN.
Another lawsuit, seeking class-action status, accuses 1-800-GET-THIN of false advertising, saying the ads failed to provide adequate warnings about the risks of the surgery. Wrongful death lawsuits allege that two brothers, Julian and Michael Omidi, were part of a "joint venture" that included the surgery centers and the 1-800-GET-THIN marketing firm.
Both Omidis have been disciplined by the state medical board over issues unrelated to 1-800-GET-THIN, according to state records.
Rojeski, a Ladera Ranch resident who loved dogs and worked as a buyer for an aerospace firm, had told friends and family that she was looking forward to the Lap-Band surgery. One friend described Rojeski as being thrilled ahead of what she hoped would be a life-changing procedure.
"I had just talked to Paula the night before. She was really excited, really happy. She told me, 'I'm going to be skinny!'" said Rojeski's longtime friend Marni Rader.
Friends said they thought that Rojeski was not significantly overweight -- her California driver's license listed her as 5 foot 5 and 160 pounds -- and that the surgery was unnecessary. Rader estimated that Rojeski weighed 180 pounds.
"I was a supportive friend, but I didn't think she needed it," Rader said. "I don't understand why it would be worth the risk for 20 or 30 pounds."
Rader said she and Rojeski met more than 10 years ago at a dog park in Orange County and had been friends ever since.
"She was never married. She never had kids. Her dogs were her kids," Rader said. "That was her happiest moment, in the park with her dogs. She loved her dogs as much as she loved her family and friends."
Dr. Michael Omidi, listed in a government filing as owner of the outpatient center at which Rojeski had her surgery, did not return a telephone call seeking comment about Rojeski's death. Instead, attorney Robert Silverman sent an email statement to The Times that he said Omidi had authorized.
"Any loss of life is tragic and our hearts and prayers go out to the family and loved ones," the statement said. "The surgery center you are discussing is fully accredited by a prestigious organization. It is my understanding that the center is conducting a full investigation of the events that transpired. Any reporting on this matter is premature."
1-800-GET-THIN and the Omidi brothers have filed a series of lawsuits against The Times, its journalists and website commenters over past coverage of the surgery deaths. Judges have dismissed three of the lawsuits and ordered the plaintiffs to pay The Times' legal expenses and fees in two of the cases.
Rojeski's friend, Rader, was one of several guests who attended a Sept. 17 memorial service at Rojeski's home. She said friends and family were surprised by two late-arriving guests: Silverman and a lawyer named Brian Oxman, both of whom have represented 1-800-GET-THIN and the Omidis in the past. They brought flowers.
"They didn't say they were sorry. They just came by," Rader said.
Oxman said in an email that he attended the service "to express my deepest sympathy to the Rojeski family and bring them flowers." He also said the Rojeski family "was a long time resident of Superior, Wisconsin, where my mother grew up and knew the Roheski family well."
Silverman did not respond to a request for comment about his attendance at the memorial.
Alexander Robertson, a Westlake Village attorney who has filed several lawsuits against 1-800-GET-THIN and its affiliates, said he thinks it's time for the Medical Board of California to take action. His clients include the family of Laura Faitro, the other woman who died after Lap-Band surgery at the West Hills center at which Rojeski had her surgery.
"Clearly it sounds like there's something very wrong," Robertson said. "I just wonder where's the Medical Board in all of this? With five reported deaths, that's not just smoke, that's a forest fire. Somebody needs to investigate."
Medical Board spokeswoman Jennifer Simoes said she could not disclose whether any of the deaths were under investigation. But she said the agency would investigate any outpatient surgery deaths of which it becomes aware.
Times staff writer W.J. Hennigan contributed to this report.