Plastic surgeon Eric Swanson's bankruptcy stalls his malpractice lawsuits.

The High Cost of Perfection 

Plastic surgeon Eric Swanson's bankruptcy stalls his malpractice lawsuits.

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But for months following her chemical peel, Mundstock looked as if she had suffered a hideous sunburn. Later, the burn turned into a scar like a bright red moustache and beard.

"It got worse as time went on," Mundstock says. "I quit sleeping because it hurt so much. Every day I would wake up and jump up and go look in the mirror and see if maybe [the redness] was all gone."

The redness would eventually go away on its own, Swanson assured her on several follow-up visits. He prescribed a cortisone cream and told her to be patient.

"My doctor says I'm going to heal," Mundstock told her coworkers. One flight attendant, a New Age adherent, tried to heal Mundstock, laying her hands on Mundstock's burned face and willing her into wellness Louis Hay-style, but it obviously didn't work.

"Honey, what happened to you?" passengers inquired.

Mundstock could no longer face hundreds of people each day. She took an office job with the airline and, three months after her surgery, got another opinion from a doctor her sister recommended in Toledo, Ohio.

"You're in trouble," he told her.

Mundstock returned to Leavenworth and got a third opinion from a doctor at her husband's Army base. That doctor referred her to Dr. John Searles, who was then the chief of plastic surgery at KU Medical Center's burn unit. Searles informed her that she had a hypertrophic scar -- a thick, red, raised scar -- above her lip. He fashioned a special mask that he told Mundstock she should wear night and day to help her skin heal.

The trauma took its toll. She lost weight, dropping from 130 to 106 pounds. "I couldn't eat. I couldn't sleep," Mundstock says. "When I finally would fall asleep, I'd have bizarre nightmares of being hurt."

Mundstock's husband, Jack, accompanied his masked wife to the gym and to stylish restaurants. The couple had previously enjoyed speeding along the highway in Jack's blue Mitsubishi sports car, loving the attention. Now drivers passed the flashy car and gawked at the woman wearing a mask with a metal bar poking from her mouth.

Finally, nine months after her cosmetic surgery, a few days before Halloween, Mundstock's new plastic surgeon told her she could take off the mask. She began a long series of monthly cortisone injections, and the doctor later used laser treatments on the red and broken veins around Mundstock's mouth from the painful shots.

By the time Mundstock sued Swanson in August 1996, two other women who'd had similar experiences had also filed lawsuits. A relative of a woman who had died in 1995 after Swanson performed liposuction and abdominal surgery also filed a wrongful death suit that summer.

Those would be the first of twenty medical malpractice lawsuits filed against Swanson between 1996 and 1999. Swanson has always vigorously denied the allegations that he was negligent in his patient care. In depositions, he speculated that the three women who developed hypertrophic scars and bright red or unnaturally pale splotches might have exposed themselves to the sun too soon after their chemical peels, which could be disastrous to the sensitive skin.

"There was evidence that she was a tanning-bed user," Swanson testified of one scarred woman. But the doctor could not produce that evidence -- though he testified that he'd noticed post-surgery tan lines on two of the women, he hadn't made note of that important observation anywhere in the medical records of their follow-up visits.

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