At 74, Dr. Wesley Harline is still busy building bigger breasts and younger faces for pro cheerleaders, Vegas showgirls, and porn stars. Some of the women are happy with his work. Some of them aren’t.
By Joan Kron.
Photo Editor: Claudia Lebenthal
He wants your body
Pomp and circumstances
The doctor at home in Ogden in one of his five furs. Each year, Harline does three times the number of procedures that other plastic surgeons do –grossing an estimated $2 million annually. What’s more, lawyers say that the controversial doctor is virtually judgement-proof.
Medicine chests: Harline with three of his staffers, whose breasts he has enlarged.
Two years ago, when Tina was 19, she married Roy Walker, and they moved to Bakersfield, California. One evening they went to Deja Vu, a local spot featuring nude dancers. Roy told his slender, dark-haired bride she had a better body than most of the performers there. Soon Tina took a job waiting tables at Deja Vu. "After a month, they talked me into dancing," she says. "I was so embarrassed the first time." But then, "I learned to have fun with it. Guys are screaming, throwing money at you. Really good money. You can make at least $200 a day in tips." Roy says he doesn't mind. "It's adult entertainment, like mud wrestling."
A few rungs higher on the career ladder, Tina is now a booth dancer, performing totally nude "but there's no contact"-for one client at a time at the Odd Ball in Van Nuys, California, where she's known as Serenity.
At this moment, however, Tina is topless on a table in Ogden, Utah, and she's not dancing. Wesley Harline, a cosmetic surgeon she hadn't laid eyes on until six hours ago, digs into her chest through an incision below her nipple. Tina is undergoing a breast-implant operation in Harline's basement operating room. She had heard that if she increased her bust size from 34B to 36D, she could double her tips to $400 a day. Half the girls at the club have had their breasts augmented, says Tina. Someone there told her about Harline, 74, but warned her that "he was real scary looking, but nice when you got to know him."
Using a special instrument, Harline is lifting the serratus muscles (which are overlapped by the pectoralis muscle) from Tina's chest wall so he can insert saline implants under them. Many doctors believe in using general anesthesia for this excruciatingly painful procedure. "Few patients will tolerate going under both muscles with only local anesthesia," says Gary Brody, a Los Angeles plastic surgeon and breast specialist. Tonight, Harline is using only local anesthesia and sedatives, but Tina is thrashing and moaning anyway. Her lament is not drowned out by the "lite" music, supermarket commercials, and static coming from the operating room's sound system-a GE cloak radio.
"She won't remember a thing," says Harline. Which is true. Her sedation causes a temporary memory lapse. But that doesn't mean she feels no pain. Except in emergencies, most doctors consider operating on a thrashing patient inhumane. "It's barbaric, the sign of a butcher shop," says Los Angeles plastic surgeon Peter Bela Fodor.
Down the hall, Roy Walker is playing poker with the boyfriends of two patients who went through this ordeal earlier in the evening. It's hard for him to ignore Tina's moans emanating from behind the door of the operating room. "I was afraid she was partly awake," he admits later, but he has faith in the doctor. "Harline has technique and experience," says Roy, a carpenter. "He's done tens of thousands of these operations. I'm sure he's made mistakes, just like me in my work. But I bet he doesn't make the same mistake twice."
In the operating room, the two technicians assisting Harline keep glancing at the visiting journalist to gauge her reaction. They look relieved when, around 8:30, halfway through Tina's operation, the doorbell rings. The circulating technician, whose hands do not have to be sterile, dashes upstairs in her operating-room booties to admit Steve Clark, the registered nurse anesthetist. "He was supposed to be here at 6:30," the doctor mutters under his mask. In short order, Tina's sedation is increased and the scrub technician stitches up one breast while Harline does a lift on the other to make it equally perky. "You wouldn't want a breast that droops," he says, "I wouldn't want my name attached."
Six weeks later, Tina Walker is still stiff and sore, and a little disappointed at how large her chest is. But four months after the operation, everything is "perfect." She blames herself for being "a baby" about the pain.
Wesley Grant Harline is a medical phenomenon. A cosmetic surgeon with no board certification in either general or plastic surgery, he is one of the country's most controversial practitioners of the specialty -and one of the busiest. According to the American Society of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgeons, whose members must be certified by the American Board of Plastic Surgery, the average number of aesthetic procedures performed by each member annually is about 200. Harline claims he does more than triple that number: "Five hundred breast-implant operations a year, minimum,” plus a sizable number of just about every other cosmetic facial and body procedure. (He doesn't do hair implants.)
It is doubtful whether many of Harline's predominantly out-of-state patients have a clue that Utah's Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing (OPL) has been after Harline, off and on, since 1977. In 1992, the OPL began legal proceedings to stop the doctor from performing invasive surgery and keeping patients overnight in his clinic. "Even when prospective patients do know," says office manager Carol Lynne Smith, "it doesn't bother them." One woman from Las Vegas requested the OPL papers, read them, and called to say she was coming anyway.
For those seeking nips and tucks and especially breast implants at a good price, the Harline Clinic is considered the Promised Land. Every day, patients from Las Vegas, Reno, Los Angeles, Phoenix, even Anchorage and Boston make the pilgrimage to the clinic, flying into Salt Lake City and driving 30 miles north to Ogden. The recent death of Pamela Zlatnik, who returned to the clinic two weeks after her facelift, does not seem to have hurt business. Few people are aware of it.
Harline prepares for liposuction. The doctor allegedly performed second-trimester abortions (in his clinic rather than in a hospital), done a clitoridectomy (without consent), and used insufficient anesthetics. “Our license,” he says, “has never been revoked.”
A fourth of the doctor's patients are in the "entertainment field," says Harline. His celebs aren't "names." Instead, they're members of the Oakland Raiderettes and Dallas Cowgirls cheerleaders and Las Vegas's Riviera Hotel Crazy Girls ("I've done two-thirds of them," says Harline), plus holders of such titles as Miss Nude North America.
Most doctors wouldn't want to take the blame for the large breasts Harline is willing to create. But Harline has no qualms. "I don't think oversize is attractive, but if that's what they want...," he'll place a special order.
"We call Utah 'Boob-tah," says "Shirley," a 23-year-old boutique owner from Southern California and one of the 75 percent of Harline's patients who are not in show business. She went to the clinic in March to hold the hand of a friend and ended up impulsively getting implants, too. The place was so full that the two women volunteered to share a bed (an arrangement that increases the risk of infection and one that hospitals would never allow). Shirley's friend "Anna" says Harline's fee -$2,495 at the time- was the clincher.
"It was half what I was being quoted back in Los Angeles."
Recently Harline's price for an augmentation went up to $2,650-still a relative bargain. The fee includes implants, anesthesia, and a bed for as many nights as necessary. Postop care is do-it-yourself or bring-a-friend. Patients are given keys to the clinic. They can borrow one of Harline's Cadillacs to go grocery shopping, or they can order in pizza or other fast food.
Harline bristles at the suggestion that his fees are the secret of his success. "Even if you gave it away, if you didn't have good results [no one would come]. Charging any more would be like sticking a gun in someone's ribs."
Says Anna, "I had my doubts because it was so inexpensive," but she figured that L.A. 's higher prices probably reflected "the higher cost of lawsuit insurance in California."
Strangely, considering his conservative background (he is a former member of the Utah State Board of Health and the son of an upstanding Mormon who was a credit manager of Standard Oil Company), Wesley Harline has no malpractice insurance nor any funds set aside to pay claims against him. Even though he probably grosses upwards of $2 million a year, a civil suit could be a legal nightmare. After the 1985 failure of Ogden's Citizen's Bank, of which Harline was a founder and a director, he declared personal bankruptcy. In 1988, he was accused by federal bankruptcy judge John Allen of hiding his assets. Harline was also found financially liable for the pension-fund losses of some 80 bank employees. "I was left holding the bag," explains Harline, who says he lost $5 million of his own money and paid $500,000 to settle the matter.
Today, given the tangled legalities, Harline is considered virtually judgment-proof. Consequently, lawyers in Utah are reluctant to take even meritorious cases against him. Not that there haven't been complaints. The OPL's 1992 petition to restrict his license (which is still pending) and Harline's denials are detailed in 28 pages of public documents. Headlines in the Ogden Standard-Examiner and the Salt Lake Tribune give a synopsis of the saga: "Ogden Cosmetic Surgeon Is Target of State Investigation"; "State Says Doctor Violated Surgical, Drug Procedures"; "Ogden Doctor a Danger, Surgeons Testify"; "Witness Testifies to Unsafe Practices, Filth and Lack of Care at Ogden Clinic." (A former patient, Sabel Tyree, said, "I wouldn't have a pedicure in that clinic now.")
In court papers filed by the OPL, it is alleged, among other things, that Harline performed unnecessary operations without patients' "prior knowledge and consent"; injected liquid silicone, which is not approved by the FDA; disregarded a patient's request for saline, rather than silicone, implants; prescribed controlled substances for cases in which such drugs were "contraindicated or contrary to law"; and provided false documentation to two hospitals indicating that he "currently held malpractice insurance" when in fact he had none and "knew he was uninsured."
A gilt trip
Harline in a custom-made outfit from Las Vegas. When the doctor stopped by the clinic recently, says a patient’s mate, “he looked like a hundred-thousand-dollar bill.”
The Tribune didn't spare the lurid details. "Harline," it reported, "is alleged to have become romantically involved with a patient. After becoming aware the woman was stealing prescription drugs for her own use, he failed to notify authorities, it's alleged. He also purportedly performed a [clitoridectomy] on the woman without her consent while she was under general anesthesia and no one was assisting him in the procedure."
According to the Tribune's Anne Wilson, "Harline contends he's been unfairly targeted because he performs abortions." Says the doctor, "Our license has never been revoked… The charges have never been proved. There's been a lot of jealousy. I do so much more work than my colleagues."
At one point in the case, the court found that Harline failed to obtain fully adequate and informed consent; to provide adequate levels of anesthesia, appropriate instructions for use of medications, and adequate care for postoperative patients; and to maintain his facility in a sanitary manner. The court also found that he "used liquid silicone in inappropriate surgical procedures."
Until the case is settled, Harline can practice with the proviso that "his cosmetic surgery clinic conforms with the state medical standards." It seems incredible that Harline is still operating -not just to his critics but even to those who believe he is a gifted technician with questionable judgment.
"It's a very complicated case, but it's not closed," says a spokesman for Assistant Attorney General Robert Steed, who was recently assigned to the case.
"The state has been after us for three years," says Harline's attorney, J.Bruce Reading. "Dr. Harline has attracted a lot of attention in Utah and nationally. He has, with the consent of patients, used procedures that the FDA has advised not take place -like silicone implants. He has other ideas that have been looked at with distaste by the state. He's been [targeted]. It causes nothing but heartburn to the doctor."
Reading expects a fourth filing against Harline shortly and says he'll fight it vigorously. "With the [number] of people we are looking to interview, we don't expect a resolution for a year to 18 months. [Dr. Harline] wants it known that it is very defensible."
Meticulous about his defense, Harline is less precise about his brochures. Several state that he "graduated in plastic surgery training at the Mayo Clinic." Sources at Mayo say he completed only 15 months of a three-year program, and when pressed, Harline admits he never finished his training.
In 1953, Harline got his Utah medical license and joined his older brother, Alden, and another physician as a surgeon in their general practice (both are now deceased). In time, besides doing hernia operations and appendectomies, Harline began dispensing diet pills. In the 60s, after silicone implants were developed, he did the occasional breast augmentation. His cosmetic surgery career got a boost in the late 70s when a delighted implant patient, a Delta stewardess, referred her mother, who worked in the Las Vegas police department. By now, says Harline, "I've done half the policewomen in Las Vegas."
His next big break came from Erika Giannotti, owner of Erika's Naughty Nails, a chain of five shops in Phoenix. She discovered Harline 17 years ago when she admired a client's face-lift. She's sent Harline so many patients (four or five hundred by her estimate) that "I don't have to pay anymore."
In time, Harline said he was going to "spend his retirement years doing cosmetic surgery," says Sherry Doman, who used to scrub for him on weekends. (Doman is devoted to Harline even though she went into cardiac arrest during a breast-implant revision he performed on her 20 years ago. She was subsequently in a coma for three days. The problem, she says, was low potassium from dieting. "Thanks to me, he now checks potassium levels.")
Patients get their first glimpse of Harline in one of his examining rooms.
He wastes no time on formalities. "Take your top off," he instructs one young breast-implant candidate before remembering to introduce himself. Many admit to being initially put off by Harline's ghostly appearance. His hennaed hair is blow-dried into a wispy pompadour. "I thought I would keel over and die, he was so old," says one patient.
Harline does not wear booties over his street shoes in the operating room, and his habit of going directly from the operating room to examining preoperative patients without changing out of his blood-stained gown doesn't do much for initial impressions. It also violates the rules of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the federal agency charged with protecting employees from workplace hazards.
Despite the complaints lodged at the OPL hearing, patients who arrive at the clinic expecting to be operated on the next morning are still told they can be fit into the schedule that very day. "But I ate on the plane," one woman told a bystander. "Is that all right?" Sometimes, apparently, it is.
Friday night is the busiest time at the clinic, a one-story, 50s building in a quiet Ogden neighborhood. From the street, the rose-and-blue Frenchified waiting room looks dark and deserted, except for a plaster nude. But in the Piano Lounge (a room accommodating two in a sofa bed) and in the netherworld of basement bedrooms dubbed the Rose Room, the Gold Room, the Red Room, and the Crystal Room (each decorated accordingly), every bed is occupied. The women in them, though, lie flat on their backs with their new breasts pointed heavenward like the mountain peaks that ring Ogden, and seem dead to the world. They barely notice when the doctor unbuttons their bras to show his work to the visitor.
There are signs of life at the foot of the curving, red-carpeted staircase ("the stairway to hell," one disenchanted former patient calls it), a pretentiously decorated passageway to the cellar lit by a cascading crystal chandelier more suitable for the lobby of a grand motel. Down here is not only the operating room but the lounge, with its faux-daylight picture window, TV, Pullman kitchen, and sinkload of dirty dishes.
One real convenience offered by Harline is virtual around-the-clock surgery, six days a week. "Operating at night is not customary, but it suits me and the patients," says Harline, who regularly puts in 15-hour workdays. He says he would operate on Sundays, but the nurses won't. There's only one problem with the unorthodox hours: Harline is short-staffed on nights and weekends, so the two operating-room assistants have to answer phones and doors in the middle of operations.
Harline's breast-implant patients must make two important decisions. First, the size of the implants. "The name of the game is big," says Harline. Every other year or so, he admits, he installs gargantuan 2,000-cc implants -more than a half-gallon. A Boston dancer with a small B cup (who spent three days on a bus to reach the clinic) has asked to become an EE cup and is getting 600-cc implants. During the operation Harline whispers to me, "I personally think it is too big, but that's what she wanted." Says New York plastic surgeon Phillip Casson, "In my opinion, anyone who puts in half-gallon implants is guilty of malpractice."
The second decision is the type of implant: silicone gel-filled or saline-filled. Silicone-gel implants have been banned in the United States by the FDA since 1992 for first-time augmentation. Harline, who is said to have stockpiled silicone implants, complains that "the press has poisoned women against silicone." Ninety percent of his patients choose saline, which the doctor tells one patient "will last forever" (the current thinking is that all implants will eventually need to be replaced). "I will use silicone if [the patient] insists," Harline tells me. Many plastic surgeons aren't convinced silicone is dangerous but abide by the ban nonetheless. Harline, it seems, doesn't.
During my three-day visit to the Harline Clinic, at every preop consultation I witnessed, Harline offered each first-time augmentation patient a choice of saline or silicone implants, saying, "This is silicone gel, which I don't use much anymore. But I still use it."
It's unclear where Harline's implants come from. The only company making silicone for the U.S. market is Mentor H/S, and distribution has been tightly controlled since 1992, says company president Dennis Condon. "Our product goes only to approved investigators."
Mentor H/S is prohibited by the FDA from supplying silicone-gel implants to a noninvestigator. Harline claims that he is an investigator and that the first-time augmentation patient whose operation I witness (the dancer from Boston) will be "in the study group"-a questionable statement, since there is presently no study of first-time augmentation patients. Even if Harline was using siiicone gel-filled implants acquired before the ban or manufactured in, say, Brazil, he would technically be breaching FDA rules.
The 1992 court order requires that Harline obtain informed consent in advance for all surgical procedures. Office manager Carol Lynne Smith does the honors, at the same time closing the sale and collecting the balance due, in cash.
The OPL papers have alleged that patients were left unattended at the clinic. Carolyn Cloonan, a shift boss at a Las Vegas casino, had a face-lift and eyelid-lift there in 1991. "The nurses never did anything for us at night," she recalls. "They all leave. You're down there alone. We ended up taking care of each other." In October 1990, "Alicia," a publicist, went to Harline for implants. She remembers listening to a fellow patient who'd had liposuction "screaming in pain all night. The doctor wasn't there. It was like a B movie. And I was almost delirious with pain."
These days, Harline sleeps at the clinic. Almost every night, instead of going home to his penthouse, he crashes in his scrub suit on the sofa in the lounge. "We never leave [patients] alone, although we could," he says.
It is hard to assess whether Harline has a larger percentage of complications than normal. "He defies ethics. Defies the halls of justice. Defies authority," says an Ogden doctor.
But Harline insists he stands behind his work. If there are problems, he tells patients, he'll make good. Often, those with postop problems contact doctors in their own towns. "I don't want to assume his complications," says Las Vegas plastic surgeon Charles Vinnik. "I will not see his patients [anymore]. They don't care about credentials… To them, one stuffer is as good as another."
Four days after her face-lift, says Carolyn Cloonan, she and another patient went to the airport. "I was so swollen I couldn't open my eyes. If I hadn't been with the woman who had implants, I don't know how I would have seen. I thought this girl was going to die on the plane. She's holding her breasts screaming. I'm in agony."
Pamela Zlatnik is the clinic's first fatality. She was found dead in her bed there on February 22. According to her daughter, Christina Siler, Zlatnik, 53, had had a face-lift at Harline's clinic in early February and returned there two weeks later. "She was a walking zombie," says Siler. "Her face was on fire. She had a hematoma under her chin and an infection, and she wasn't healing."
"The face-lift was fine," Harline says. "I was trying to get her off smoking"-which impedes healing. The cause of death is "unconfirmed" on the autopsy report, which says Zlatnik had a staph infection around her incision. According to Siler, Harline gave Zlatnik tranquilizers, despite Siler's objections. She admits her mother had a drinking problem, which could have contributed to her death (no alcohol was found in her blood). "My problem," says Siler, "is why she was operated on at all." The autopsy found that Zlatnik had high blood pressure, a heart problem, and emphysema. "In my opinion," Siler says, "Dr. Harline is negligent for performing surgery on a woman in such obvious poor health."
But for every unsatisfactory outcome, there are scores of satisfied patients: Grateful Penthouse Pets and porn stars send pictures that Harline, a former Sunday-school teacher, considers too risqué for his before-and-after book.
Saturday is the doctor's night off. Lately, Harline, the twice-divorced father of three grown children, steps out with Judy Morgan, a former hairdresser who is one of his operating-room technicians. Tonight's outing is dinner with some staff members and their spouses at the buttoned-down Ogden Golf and Country Club. Morgan and Harline are the last to arrive. Morgan enters, resplendent in a metal-studded jumpsuit.
Harline follows in what can only be described as late-Liberace drag. He's in a long, white mink coat. Under it is a midnight blue Caesar's Palace-tailored leisure suit adorned with a jeweled brooch, pearl tennis bracelet, diamond studs and cuff links, and four knuckle-covering diamond and pearl rings.
It's clear that Harline is waiting for a compliment on his attire. Soon, one is offered. "If you're going to be a cosmetic surgeon,” he muses, dead serious, "you ought to look the part."