In an article Tuesday on plastic surgery in Brazil, the last name of patient Isabel Gomes Oguino was misspelled in several instances. (Published 10/07/1999)
There is the administrative assistant who worries that her botched cosmetic surgery has turned her into a "monster." There is the teenager whose breast reduction went so badly that nightmares plagued her for months. There is the typist who, after her plastic surgery, couldn't bear to let her husband see her naked.
And then there is Isabel Gomes Oguino. The former schoolteacher, 41, had breast and abdomen surgery two years ago to relieve back problems caused by obesity. Recently, she stood up and peeled back her sweater and the waistband of her slacks to reveal massive pink-and-white blotches on her breasts, winding scars along her groin and a ragged saucer-size indentation beneath her navel.
"I'm not embarrassed to show the scars," she said. "I hope that he won't be able to make anybody else a victim. Something must be done."
The doctor allegedly responsible for the anguish of Oguino and the others is Alberto Rondon, accused of having marred scores of women who have sought his help over the past 15 years. One hundred forty-six women and two men to be exact.
Many carry scars that look like they came from severe burns. Others suffered nerve damage. Some have difficulty walking. And those are just the physical troubles. The husbands of some of the women abandoned them. A number of the former patients take antidepressants. Others are in therapy.
"I've been a plastic surgeon 34 years, and I've never seen anything like this," said Farid Hakme, president of the Brazilian Society of Plastic Surgery, whose members, at the urging of the Health Ministry, have agreed to perform free corrective operations on the women. "It's like he was a rapist."
Rondon, 43, holds no license to practice plastic surgery. As in other nations, doctors in Brazil ostensibly need some training to pursue a specialty, but hospitals and state health councils here rarely challenge -- or seek to authenticate -- a physician's credentials.
"Rondon is not in prison because as long as a doctor in Brazil has a medical degree, he can do whatever he wants," Hakme said. "He can, but -- and this is important -- he should not."
Prosecutors are considering whether to charge Rondon with numerous counts of assault, and a state council must decide whether he should keep his medical license.
Some of Rondon's former patients waited years to complain. They said they feared Rondon because he was both a doctor and a politician; he served in the state legislature during the late 1980s and remained influential in Campo Grande politics. The former clients say they did not dare impugn a man with such clout in the community.
Rondon's lawyer says they did not come forward because they knew Rondon was innocent. Rondon is no longer practicing plastic surgery, "not because he has done anything wrong," said Rene Siufe, a prominent criminal attorney, but "with a huge campaign like this against him, he can't work."
Rondon told state health officials he had had some training in plastic surgery but had not earned certification qualifying him as a specialist. He chose to focus on plastic surgery with good reason. The specialty has exploded in Brazil, where international celebrities come for cosmetic operations and people casually discuss tummy tucks and face lifts. There is even a magazine called Plastica. Hakme says the number of doctors in his society has grown since 1994 from 2,400 to 3,200.
The society estimates that 500 physicians may be practicing plastic surgery in Brazil without proper training, but health officials say no one knows for sure.
Decades ago, when 70 percent of Brazilians lived in rural areas, many villages and towns relied on one doctor, who performed checkups and surgery and prescribed medicine. Today 70 percent of the population resides in urban centers, and many health officials wonder whether allowing doctors such leeway not only has become unnecessary but dangerous.
"It's a serious problem," said Sergio Furlani, president of the state medical council. "We worry about the countryside doctor. But we also worry that doctors think they have a right to practice whatever they choose."
During Rondon's 15 years of performing plastic surgery in this tranquil capital city in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul, in western Brazil, the doctor was liked even by patients who now say he should lose his license. They describe him as considerate, polite, calm, soft-spoken. They say that when they returned to him with concerns about their enormous scars and unyielding pain, he always reassured them. And they apparently always believed him. Over the years, only two patients filed complaints, according to the state medical council.
"It's normal," patients quoted Rondon as saying. "Give it time."
Luciene Vieira Sodre, 31, said that is what he told her after her operation in August 1997. The typist had gone to Rondon for surgery for firmer breasts, and before the procedure, she had shown him a tiny, near-invisible scar in the palm of her hand. "I said, `Will the scars be bigger than this?` " He assured her they would not.
But days after the surgery, Sodre said, it was clear the scars would be long and unsightly. A month later, her breasts started to bleed and suppurate. Rondon told her to wait a year.
A year later, her breasts had not improved much. She had become so ashamed she would not allow her husband to see her naked. She changed clothes in the dark. "I wouldn't even take a shower if he was in the house," she said.
Anger and depression finally drove her to complain. But first, she went to 15 other staff members in the legislature who had been operated on by Rondon. One by one, she asked them about their experiences. And she took pictures of their scars.
Last April, she and 20 other women went to the media and state authorities. When others heard the allegations and the news reports, they too came forward. One day, eight. Another day, six. Until there were more than 100. Ultimately, 146 women, from teenagers to women in their fifties, gave statements to police.
Some had had surgery more than a decade ago. And they knew that many people in Campo Grande were asking, "Why come forward now?"
"Nobody wanted to be part of a public scandal," said Oguini, who had her surgery two years ago. "Nobody wanted to have to show people their scars. A lot of women just thought their bodies had rejected the procedure. After all, we're not doctors. Everything the doctor told us, we believed."
Oguini's case turned out to be one of the worst. She had gone to Rondon for breast and abdomen reductions because she weighed 259 pounds. She said that five days after her surgery, intense pain in her breasts sent her back to the doctor. He told her to come back six months later. And she did. She made 10 appointments to see him between February and December 1998. She says he never showed up.
Early this year, she discovered that Rondon apparently had taken so much skin from her abdomen and groin area that she could not extend her leg to its full length. She now walks with a cane.
Oguini says her life has crumbled. She had to quit her job. She takes two types of antidepressants. She used to smoke one cigarette per day, now it's two packs a day.
The team from the Brazilian Society of Plastic Surgery will operate on her next month. Oguini also has taken solace in the unofficial support group that has formed among the accusers. With the help of the government's Office on Public Policy for Women, they counsel each other, weep together, show each other their scars.
None of the women interviewed said they want the doctor to go to prison. Most said he should simply lose his medical license.
"He'll have a TV, air conditioning, a cellular phone" in prison, said Lina Duarte Cabreira, 36, the administrative assistant who underwent surgery four years ago.
A few minutes earlier she had said, "Even if he compensated us with money, that can't heal the psychological suffering. Someone who has done what he's done should himself be operated on and scarred forever, so that he can know how we feel."