What Is Fat Embolism Syndrome?

A medical examiner has determined that a woman who died while undergoing plastic surgery at a South Florida clinic suffered a fat embolism while receiving a Brazilian butt lift.

The ruling of Fat Embolism Syndrome (FES) in the death of Heather Meadows has many asking what FES is.

FES occurs when fat particles become clogged in the bloodstream and blocks a blood vessel. FES can lead to coma or, as in the case of Meadows, death.

Many cases of FES occur after a fracture or surgery on a broken bone, such a the femur. When the bone breaks, bone marrow can sometimes enter the bloodstream.

FES can also happen after severe burns or a massive soft tissue injury, and has been known to happen during liposuction.

Doctors say what happened to Meadows at the clinic is rare, but NBC 6 uncovered a handful of cases where local women have died of the same cause during the same procedure.

"The first sign would be suffocation," said Dr. Thomas Zaydon, former president of the Society of Plastic Surgeons. "Most plastic surgeons will never see a cause of fat embolism."

During a Brazilian butt lift a doctor uses a needle to suck fat out of a patient's stomach and back then uses another needle to inject that fat into the buttocks.

Dr. Zaydon said that second injection can be problematic.

"Some surgeons feel that if the fat is injected too deep you're more likely to inject it into a blood vessel and set up the provokes with fat emboli," he said.

Lidvian Zelaya died of a fat embolism during a similar butt lift procedure at a different clinic in 2010. So did Maria Shortall at another Broward clinic in 2011, and Idell Frazer in 2012. As for Meadows, the medical examiner said she was born with a heart defect which also contributed to what happened.

The doctor NBC 6 spoke with said plastic surgery can be safe but patients should research their doctor and meet with them first, and make sure they're board certified.

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