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Suit ties death of woman to face lift

National company asserts method is safe

Donna Ames, shown with her daughter Shanna, died in July at the age of 49. Donna Ames, shown with her daughter Shanna, died in
July at the age of 49.
By Jonathan Saltzman
Globe Staff / March 4, 2010

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Donna Ames, a recently divorced mother of three, was depressed and wanted to look younger. So the 49-year-old woman went to the Waltham office of Lifestyle Lift, a national cosmetic surgery company that markets its face lift as a way to “transform your life.’’

Instead of making her wrinkles vanish, the procedure killed her, Ames’s family and lawyers say in a lawsuit filed yesterday.

Minutes after a doctor administered local anesthesia on July 10 last year, Ames’s body jerked violently, and the oxygen in her blood plunged, according to a summary written by her family’s attorneys. By the time the clinic called an ambulance, the Lowell woman was brain dead.

“My mom wanted to make her life better, and they sort of took it away,’’ Evan Ames, her 18-year-old son and ad ministrator of her estate, said yesterday of Lifestyle Lift. “I’m very mad.’’

The Middlesex Superior Court suit is not the first time the company, based in Troy, Mich., has been accused of wrongdoing.

Last year, Lifestyle Lift, which says it operates more than 40 centers nationwide and advertises its procedure as safer and less invasive than traditional face lifts, agreed to pay $300,000 in penalties and costs to New York State for publishing bogus consumer reviews on websites.

Lifestyle Lift said in a statement yesterday that it was “very sorry about the sudden and unexpected passing of Ms. Ames.’’ The company has not seen the suit but said its face lift “is known as one of the safest facial procedures available because it uses a local numbing medication rather than general anesthesia.’’

The statement also said that Ames did not disclose a history of seizures or allergies to anesthesia and that staff called 911 when she became ill.

The defendants named in the suit are Lifestyle Lift and two physicians, Dr. Sanchayeeta Mitra and Dr. James C. Alex. The center, which has moved to Burlington, referred inquires to the company’s headquarters.

Evan Ames, a freshman at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, said his mother had talked about getting a face lift for some time, although he had no idea she had gone to Lifestyle Lift until after she died.

His mother, he said, had struggled for years with bipolar disorder and had been depressed since getting divorced from his father about two years ago. She had owned a maternity clothing store in Burlington for seven years, he said, but was not working at the time she had the surgery.

“She was trying to turn her life around and get another start,’’ said Ames.

Donna Ames paid $4,700 for the elective surgery, considerably less than for traditional face lifts, which cost more than $10,000 on average, according to the Ames family’s lawyer, Andrew C. Meyer Jr. of Boston. She went to the Waltham center with a friend, who planned to drive her home after a procedure that was supposed to take only about an hour.

Ames’s vital signs, including her blood pressure and oxygen levels, were stable when she entered the center, Meyer said. But minutes after she received anesthetic injections, she had a seizure and her blood pressure and oxygen levels fell, which Meyer said is a potential side effect from anesthesia.

Ames was not hooked up to any continuous-monitoring equipment, and no anesthesiologist was present, according to Meyer, so the medical staff did not know immediately how little oxygen she was getting. Forty-eight minutes after Ames received her first injection, the staff called for an ambulance; she was deprived of oxygen for far too long, Meyer said.

It was not immediately clear yesterday whether continuous-monitoring equipment and an anesthesiologist were required by law. But Meyer said a medical specialist hired by the family contends that they should have been present in case of potentially dangerous side effects from the anesthesia.

Ames was taken by ambulance to Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, where her heart stopped twice and she was diagnosed as brain dead, Meyer said. Her family took her off life support a week later.

“She goes in [the Waltham center] with a friend, expecting to be out in an hour or so, and was brain dead in half an hour,’’ Meyer said.

Lifestyle Lift says on its website that it has treated more than 100,000 people since 2001 and that “the results have been life-changing.’’ The procedure, it says, is less expensive than traditional face lifts and avoids “the anesthesia risk and physical trauma’’ of the conventional process, which employs general anesthesia.

Unlike traditional face lifts, Lifestyle Lift is not a full face lift or neck lift but creates muscle tension using sutures instead of patients’ skin, Meyer said.

The Lifestyle Lift has been featured on numerous television programs, including “The Montel Williams Show,’’ and has been advertised widely in infomercials. But the company agreed to pay a $300,000 settlement last year after New York’s attorney general, Andrew Cuomo, determined it had engaged in “astroturf marketing,’’ creating bogus grass-roots buzz by having employees fabricate online testimonials.

“I need you to devote the day to doing more postings on the Web as a satisfied client,’’ employees were told in one internal e-mail, according to Cuomo’s office.

After the settlement, Lifestyle Lift said it had changed its informational material to reflect actual patients’ comments.

Jonathan Saltzman can be reached at jsaltzman@globe.com.