Illegal clinics offer cut-rate beauty at a deadly price


Wednesday, April 25, 2001

A Toronto woman of Asian descent whose desire for the full lips, breasts and eyes of her Western counterparts turned fatal was a victim of the many illegal plastic-surgery clinics that prey on ethnic women in Canada, police said yesterday.

Two factors drew 36-year-old Thi Hanh Lan Tran to an unlikely surgical facility at the back of a dingy downtown Toronto rooming house last month: The price for the operations was about 30 per cent lower than at an accredited clinic, and the so-called surgeon spoke Ms. Tran's native tongue, Vietnamese.

For some Asian women, Western-looking eyes, a pouty mouth and bigger bust are synonymous with better jobs, socioeconomic status and desirability, said Toronto plastic surgeon Robert Stubbs, who has corrected substandard work done on Asian women and men at other unlicensed clinics in Canada and the United States.

Dr. Stubbs said eyelid reshaping and breast enlargement are the most popular forms of cosmetic surgery among Asian women, but some of those women may balk at the prices -- $3,000 for the eyelids, $6,000 for the breasts -- that mainstream surgeons charge, or may not want an English-speaking doctor.
Yesterday, Toronto Police Detective Alan MacDonald observed that several women who attended Ms. Tran's funeral in March had visible scars from recent plastic surgery on their faces.

Police suspect that, like Ms. Tran, many of those women had been patients of Minh Tam Thi Le, 36, who came to Canada last October on a student visa to study hairdressing.

Ms. Le is known to have performed breast enlargements and facial surgery on women in Toronto, Winnipeg and western Canada, Detective Sergeant Ralph Brookes of the Toronto Police major crime unit said yesterday.

Police issued a warrant yesterday for the arrest of Ms. Le, who also uses the aliases Dr. Crystal Lee or Dr. Minh Tam, and who is not a licensed doctor in Ontario.

She disappeared after Ms. Tran died last month.

Police said Ms. Le promoted her services by word of mouth and through ads in Vietnamese-language newspapers.

According to Dr. Stubbs, it's common for unlicensed clinics to use ethnic newspapers to target women and to escape the scrutiny of professional bodies such as the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario.

"We know that she has been operating for some time in the community," Det. Brookes said yesterday, adding that she might have had medical training in Vietnam. "In this case, the Asian community relied on this person . . . but she didn't have the skill."

Ms. Tran, a friendly, healthy woman who supported herself and her 16-year-old daughter working as a manicurist in a local shopping mall, was failed by her own trusting nature.

She suffered a heart attack when an anesthetic-like medication was administered to her before her surgery was to begin at the illegal Dewson Street clinic.

She was dropped off unceremoniously at a Toronto emergency room and died in hospital the next day.

Police became involved after the autopsy determined that marks on Ms. Tran showed she was being prepared for plastic surgery to her breasts and her face, Det. MacDonald said.

On Monday, police arrested Tu Ngoc Nguyen, a 39-year-old factory worker who is part owner of the three-building complex where the clinic was located.

Det. Brookes said Mr. Nguyen, who is charged with criminal negligence causing death, allegedly acted as "the nurse" during the operation and that when it went awry, police allege it was he who abandoned Ms. Tran at the emergency room, saying he'd found her unconscious in a bus shelter.

Ms. Tran's death is thought to be the first to result from unlicensed plastic surgery in Canada, regional coroner Dr. Barry McLellan said yesterday


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