“I’m building my body,” Bynum told her mom of her plans to get a surgical butt enhancement, an increasingly popular kind of cosmetic treatment whether performed by state-licensed doctors or unlicensed back-alley surgeons.
It seemed to Bynum like a good plan, her family recalls: The unlicensed surgeon she hired charged $3,500 — far less than a legitimate medical practice’s fees — and the surgeon’s Midtown Manhattan apartment-turned-clinic looked like a real doctor’s office, with proper-looking medical equipment and certificates on the walls.
During Bynum’s final treatment, the surgeon — Kevin Richardson, now serving prison time on second degree manslaughter charges in Bynum’s death — pumped liquid silicone into her veins. As the fluid coursed its way to her kidney, lungs and brain, Bynum quickly took ill. “My feet turned blue and they put me in the shower,” she told her mother, Bertie Bynum.
Richardson sent his dying patient home in a cab. “She couldn’t breathe,” Bertie Bynum said. Latesha Bynum’s terrified daughters, 8 and 13 years old at the time, called an ambulance and accompanied their mom to the hospital.
Bynum died 10 days later, on July 15, 2017.
“I’m still raising her children. I’m still going to the cemetery. My daughter didn’t make it to 32,” said Bertie Bynum, 55. She doesn’t understand why Latesha wanted the surgery in the first place. “I was like, ‘What are you doing? You’re looking great.’”
There’s no data on how often women like Bynum die at the hands of unlicensed surgeons — or from the injectable silicone treatment she received.
Injectable silicone is not approved “for any aesthetic procedure including facial and body contouring or enhancement,” the federal Food and Drug Administration says. The treatment can lead to “long-term pain, infections, and serious injuries, such as scarring and permanent disfigurement, embolism (blockage of a blood vessel), stroke, and death.”
The FDA says it is trying to raise awareness of the risks of illicit silicone injection treatment “through communications and revisions to labeling.”
Even legal butt enhancements are far more dangerous than other kinds of plastic surgery, researchers say.
A 2017 report in the Aesthetic Surgery Journal found that legal butt enhancements are 10 to 20 times more dangerous than other kinds of cosmetic surgery performed in US hospitals and clinics. Worldwide, the report says, about one of every 3,448 butt enhancement patients die because of the surgery — far higher than the overall US death rate from cosmetic surgery, which is about one in 55,000.
Despite the dangers of legal and illicit butt-enhancement surgery, more and more women seek to medically enhance their bottoms.
Legal surgical butt enhancements involving fat grafting — in which body fat is removed from elsewhere on the body and replanted in the gluteus — increased in number by over 90% from 2014 to 2019, according to a study by the American Society of Plastic Surgeons.
In 2019, U.S. plastic surgeons performed 28,076 legal butt-growing fat-grafting surgeries, which are traditionally called Brazilian butt lifts. That number dropped by 22% to 21,823 in the pandemic year of 2020, the Society’s data shows.
But the market for Brazilian butt lifts and other buttock augmentation surgery is expected to grow 22% annually and be worth $6.6 billion by 2028, says a study by Grand View Research, a San Francisco firm.
Brazilian butt lifts start with liposuction, where fat in the abdomen is probed with a sharp metal tube called a cannula. Fluid is added under the skin so that the fat can be suctioned out and then redeployed in the buttocks. A lot can go wrong.
“People are round, and you’re trying to go into a circle with a straight instrument,” said Dr. Richard Westreich, a plastic surgeon in Manhattan who does not perform Brazilian butt lifts due to the risks.
Doctors without the right technique can “sort of lose track of where they are,” prodding vital organs or accidentally injecting fat or other substances into the large blood vessels and veins in patients’ rear ends, Westreich said.
The risks in a legal butt lift are similar to those of an illegal silicone butt enhancement. “You can inject fat into the blood stream, and that causes a pulmonary embolism,” Westreich said. A pulmonary embolism is a blood clot in the lung and is often fatal.
Cosmetic butt surgery generally is not covered by medical insurance. A legal Brazilian butt lift in the US costs a minimum of around $10,000, says Bronx native Cherry Martinez, 37, who makes her living helping women get cheaper butt lifts in the Dominican Republic. Cherry says that in the Dominican Republic, legal Brazilian butt lifts cost at most $8,000.
Martinez, who claims to thoroughly vet the doctors she recommends, says some clients are so desperate to get the procedure done quickly and cheaply that they fail to do enough research or disclose their own medical problems.
Women often find their doctors on Instagram: Scrolling through carefully-curated profiles until they see something that matches their dream body, said Martinez. She says she operates a recovery home in the Dominican Republic aimed at helping women recover from butt surgery and other enhancements.
“We receive so many women who are going through depression… going through so many traumatic things,” Martinez said. “They come for these procedures and they’re vulnerable. They come with a lot of money in their hand.”
“I tell girls all the time, ‘You’re choosing this. It’s not a haircut. You have a responsibly not to just pay the money, show up and lay there. You have to do the work and know what you’re getting yourself into.’”
Though new medical guidelines have improved safety of legal butt surgery, women like Bynum continue to die from illicit treatments — often at the hands of people without medical licenses.
In 2018, treatment at an illicit Bronx clinic sent 49-year-old Leslie Ayala into cardiac arrest from the same kind of silicone embolism that killed Bynum, according to the medical examiner’s office. Her cause of death was “systemic silicone embolism syndrome due to cosmetic silicone injections of buttocks and thighs.”
Ayala had traveled to the Bronx from Philadelphia for the procedure. The unlicensed surgeon blamed for her death, Whalesca Castillo, has pleaded not guilty in Bronx Supreme Court to manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide, and unauthorized practice of a profession. She previously pleaded guilty in September 2011 to federal charges involving operating an underground cosmetic clinic and was sentenced to one year in prison.
Doctors suspect a botched butt injection in the death in February of Maxine Messam, 53, who was dropped off at Jacobi Hospital by two women who said they’d spotted her wandering in distress at Woodlawn Cemetery. She died hours later, after doctors found needle marks in her body and realized a foreign substance had been injected into her rear.
Many of the women who perish from butt surgery are memorialized on Instagram pages that serve as warnings to other women to stay away from the particular doctor or clinic responsible. One such account called Doll Memorial features mothers, sisters, daughters and friends from all over the world, numbering in the hundreds.
Bertie Bynum wishes her daughter knew better than to trust a back-alley surgeon with her body — and her cash.
Kevin Richardson, the fake doctor charged with taking Bynum’s life, was sentenced in September 2018 to up to 12 years in prison. He’s doing his time at the Franklin Correctional Facility in northern New York, and is eligible for a parole hearing next year.
Richardson’s nurse, Allison Spence, served two years in prison and was released in 2019. The sentence seems inadequate to Bynum’s mother. “You think that was punishment enough? She took my daughter’s life,” said Bynum.
“I have no peace. Her kids don’t have any peace. They’re still here with me,” Bynum said. “They’re the best they can be. They have no parents.”
As throngs of young women seek butt enhancement procedures to be beach-body ready for this summer, Bertie Bynum’s advice is simple: Don’t.
“It’s not even worth it. That’s like suicide, that’s like killing yourself. These people are liars. They will manipulate you,” she said.