On the latest episode of OWN's Iyanla, Fix My Life, Iyanla Vanzant tried to help former model Anivia with her obsession with butt injections. Anivia's life is now in danger as silicone from the injections has started dripping into her legs, making it hard for her to stand or sit too long. Earlier this year, Dallas resident Denise Rochelle Ross was arrested for illegally administering butt injections, which possibly left one woman dead. In the November 2012 issue of ESSENCE, we examined the growing trend. Read below for one woman's terrifying journey.
The first sign something was wrong came when Apryl Michelle Brown couldn't stop itching. Feverishly scratching her buttocks provided some relief, but Brown soon started to feel a throbbing sensation in her posterior. Confused and anxious, she Googled "silicone butt injections."
Eyes fixed on the screen, Brown clicked on a site featuring testimonials of women suffering from the same painful itching, their bodies deformed by lumps of silicone. "They were horror stories," says Brown, a Los Angeles cosmetologist. "I knew I was in trouble." But she says, "I had no idea it was going to be this much trouble."
Two years earlier in 2004, Brown says she paid a "pumper," an unlicensed person, to inject industrial-grade silicone into her buttocks. By early 2006 she says the silicone had hardened, causing severe pain and infection, ultimately requiring her to have lifesaving amputation of her limbs last year. Now adjusting to her new life with prosthetics, Brown, 46, is sharing her story to warn other women about the risks of resorting to back-alley cosmetic procedures.
As the fifth of six children, Brown says she was teased by family and friends about her flat "pancake" booty, resulting in lifelong insecurity. She vowed early on that the moment she could get enough money, she'd buy herself a better backside. "I didn't know if I wanted to look like Janet Jackson or J.Lo," Brown says. "I just wanted a new, bigger booty."
Getting an A-list physique is just one reason behind the rise in "pumping parties," where silicone, often mixed with other substances, is injected into buttocks, breasts or lips, experts say. The attention focused on celebrities with bountiful backsides—from Kim Kardashian to Nicki Minaj—possibly fuels the demand. And the quest to build a bigger butt has become big business. According to the American Society of Plastic Surgery (ASPS), the number of legitimate buttock implantations, which cost up to $15,000, rose by 43 percent between 2010 and 2011. There is no data on the number of illegal silicone butt injections, but anecdotal evidence suggests the bad economy may have led many people to try these injections, says Malcolm Z. Roth, M.D., president of the ASPS. Butt injections, which can range from $300 to $1,000, are a less costly alternative to implantation. But they're far from safe.
"People look at them as cheap, easy and not life-threatening," Roth says. "But that's not the case at all."
Last year, 20-year-old Claudia Aderotimi died of heart failure after receiving butt injections at a Philadelphia hotel. In 2011 a Baltimore dancer was rushed to the hospital after receiving a series of injections to her butt and hips. Silicone was found in her lungs. In July, Oneal Ron Morris, a transgendered Florida woman, was arrested and could face charges of manslaughter for allegedly injecting super glue, bathroom caulk and Fix-A-Flat into a 31-year-old mother who died last year. Morris's lawyer, Michael Mirer, says his client intends to plead not guilty.
But injecting silicone is hardly new. As far back as World War II, silicone shots were used to boost bustlines, predating today's implants. In 1992 the FDA banned liquid injectable silicone, and today board-certified plastic surgeons won't inject silicone into any body part. Instead, for those looking to enhance their rear view, buttock implants and fat transfers are the only doctor-approved procedures.
Still, girlfriends can be more persuasive than science, says psychiatrist Sharon Jones, M.D. She explains that peer pressure can be a powerful motivator for someone struggling with poor self-image. "They're not asking the right questions of themselves or of the procedure," she notes.
Such was the case with Brown, who says her friends also used silicone injections. Brown knew that her pumper wasn't a doctor; she was one of her salon clients. During a hair appointment, the woman, whom Brown won't identify, showed off her new derriere.
"It was like bam, boom, pow," Brown says. The woman's new behind was just like the one she'd always wanted.
"I was like, 'Oh, my God, you do injections like that?'" Brown recalls. "She said, 'Yeah.' And I said, 'How much do you charge?' "
To this day Brown says she doesn't remember how much the woman actually charged—maybe $500, maybe $1,000. But Brown does remember this: A month later she set up an appointment with the pumper. She hadn't heard any horror stories, so she figured it was safe. Brown was no stranger to cosmetic procedures: She'd previously undergone breast reduction surgery. On this occasion she decided not to go to a plastic surgeon—she was afraid that butt implants would be too expensive.
"I couldn't just blow 15 thousand, 30 thousand, 40 thousand on my ass," says Brown. "[With the pumper], I felt like I was getting a deal."
For her first injection Brown went to the pumper's two-story home outside Los Angeles. There she says the pumper sent her into her teenage daughter's bedroom, where an assistant filled syringes with what she assumed was silicone. Brown says she was shown to "a twin-size bed that had a little canopy over it. I'm lying face down, thinking, Oh, my God, I'm finally going to have a butt." Brown says the pumper injected her several times in the crease between the butt and the thigh. The woman then instructed her to massage the area regularly to settle the silicone and to wear cheek-exposing shapewear to help reduce any swelling.
Brown was eager to unveil her new curves. But the mother of two, who had kept the procedure a secret from her family, didn't initially see a bootylicious body in the mirror. A month later when she returned for round two it was more painful. "I remember saying, 'This is it for me. If this doesn't work, I'm just going to settle with what I have.' " Still not seeing any improvement, Brown says she didn't go back for her final two treatments. "I thought I had escaped any problems," she says. "But it was too late."
Over time she says the injected area became intensely irritated and painful, and the skin blackened. At first Brown was too embarrassed to tell her doctor what she had done, waiting almost a year before seeking help. By that time she was desperate to have the silicone removed. But she says none of the doctors referred by her HMO would agree to do the surgery because the procedure is risky and often leads to disfigurement. "If the silicone is taken out, you will have dimpling, excess skin, scars everywhere, and there's the risk of infection," says Andrew Jimerson, M.D., medical director of Advanced Plastic Surgery Solutions in Atlanta. (Jimerson did not treat Brown.)
Her health continued to deteriorate as nagging, aching pain and fever caused sleepless nights. Brown says she called her pumper in 2008 and asked her, "How do I get this out of me?" She says the woman told her that she was experiencing similar symptoms. The pumper told her she was afraid that if she sought help she'd be arrested. For her part Brown insists that she isn't angry with the pumper and will not press charges or sue. "I knew it was black market," she says. "I knew she wasn't a doctor. I knew she wasn't a nurse. I knew all those things. So I was disappointed in myself, never angry with her. I'm still not."
Ultimately it was an infection that nearly killed Brown. In the summer of 2011 she woke up feeling lethargic and was suffering from a shortness of breath. When her family rushed her to the emergency room, doctors said Brown wouldn't live past that day. "She was going into septic shock," recalls her elder daughter, Danye Wooden, 22. "Her organs were shutting down; her heart and her lungs weren't getting enough blood."
Brown was diagnosed with necrotizing soft tissue infection secondary to infected foreign material, meaning her tissue from her lower back down to her midthigh was dying from a barrage of bacteria from the silicone. "Certainly, without surgery she would have died," says her surgeon, James Black, M.D. For weeks Brown was on high doses of pain medication as a team of infectious disease doctors, surgeons and nurses treated her in a series of more than 20 operations. She recalls the fear on her daughters' faces. "I was like, How could I put them through this?" she says now.
But there was more bad news in store. The medication used to keep Brown's blood pressure stabilized and her vital organs alive had starved her extremities of much-needed blood, according to Black. Amputation was the only recourse. In August 2011, doctors amputated Brown's hands, feet and, ironically, much of her buttocks. Only a one-inch-thick layer of skin and tissue remained of her butt. Brown was then outfitted with prosthetics and transferred to a rehab facility, where she began the task of adjusting to what she calls her "new normal."
Returning last November to the home she shares with her sister was sobering. She was used to relying on her hands for everything—including her work. "I couldn't cook. I couldn't garden. I couldn't do hair. I couldn't do anything," she says. Work was impossible.
Her days are now centered on the basics: working with a home health aide whom she relies on to help her dress, bathe and eat. Navigating a life with prosthetics while receiving $840 a month in disability benefits has been difficult. Brown explains that her body is always hot because of the artificial limbs, so she has to drink water constantly. Her foot sometimes itches, though it's no longer there. Despite all this Brown says she refuses to wallow in depression; she is just happy to be alive. "People ask, 'How do you get through? How are you so positive?' Because God keeps showing me His grace," she says.
Brown now spends time going out with friends, cruising on her three-wheel bike and keeping her spirits up, thanks to "pep talks" from Oprah's Super Soul Sunday programming on OWN. "She is stronger than you may think," says her younger daughter, Courtney Wooden, 21. "She's probably the strongest person I've ever known."
Brown, determined to warn others about the risks of silicone injections, has established the Apryl Michelle Brown Trust, an organization that hosts self-esteem workshops and motivational speaking engagements. Before she lost her limbs, but after getting the fateful butt injections, Brown says she overheard some people in the nail salon talking about going to a pumping party. "I said, 'Feel my butt. I got silicone injections in my butt and now it's hard and painful.' And they just looked at me disgusted. And I said, 'I just wanted to tell y'all, because nobody told me.' They were all rolling their eyes, and that's okay. The ones that I'm supposed to share my story with, they'll get it.
"I was left here for a purpose," she says finally. "I have to get the word out so that nobody else makes this choice."
Amy Elisa Keith is a freelance journalist and lifestyle expert in Los Angeles.