Pina Vitale waited 15 years to get a tummy tuck — a surgery to tighten up her abdomen. She had been wanting to get the procedure after the birth of her child and spent the last few years preparing for it: getting healthy, quitting smoking and losing weight.
After Vitale spent two months researching plastic surgeons, she settled in July on Dr. Mahmood Kara, who also goes by Mahmud Kara of Dr. Kara Plastic Surgery. His website says he has more than 27 years of experience doing cosmetic surgery, the reviews were positive and his staff made her feel comfortable over the phone.
"It was set and I was very excited," she said. "It's not for everybody else in the world, it's for me. It was to make me feel better."
Vitale paid a 50 per cent deposit of $6,500. In the weeks leading up to her Oct. 4 appointment to meet Kara at his location in the Scarborough Centenary Hospital, however, she couldn't reach anyone at the clinic. Neither could CBC News.
Vitale is one of a dozen patients CBC News has spoken with who say Kara has taken thousands of dollars of their money and disappeared. Many other patients have commented on his company's social media pages with similar stories. Several say they filed complaints with York Regional Police and the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario.
"No one's answering my calls. My emails are being sent back … phones have been disconnected. So I'm like, 'What's going on?'" she old CBC News during an interview at her home in Nobleton, Ont. "It's so disappointing …. [I worked] so hard to get here."
Kara operates four private clinics across Ontario in Toronto, Scarborough, Vaughan and Whitby and has two satellite locations in Guelph and Burlington, according to his company's website.
CBC News has reached out to Kara multiple times through lawyers, over email, phone, social media and in person. He has not responded to any of our questions or requests for comment.
Patient who took out loan for $16,500 'completely devastated'
Heather Hill borrowed $16,500 from a loan company that paid Kara directly, and in full, for breast augmentation surgery.
"I'm completely devastated and I'm stressed to the max," she said in an interview in Brantford, Ont., near her home on the Six Nations of the Grand River.
She chose Kara after reading positive reviews and speaking with a friend who had a good experience. She met Kara for her consultation in July and described him as quiet.
WATCH | Patient Heather Hill explains when she realized something was wrong:
"There were no warning signs at all," she said.
"I was really looking forward to [the surgery]. I thought that it would be life changing for me and my self-confidence."
The non-profit Breast Implant Safety Alliance (BISA), which advocates for people who've had negative outcomes with breast implants and promotes accountability and patient safety, says it's common in North America for patients to pay a deposit for their procedure then to pay in full weeks before the surgery date.
Some patients originally told Kara on personal leave
Hill says her surgery was initially booked for Aug. 25, but was rescheduled for the following month because the clinic said the anesthesiologist wasn't available. A week before the new date, she received an email from the clinic saying her surgery was cancelled and would be rescheduled again.
"Dr. Kara will be away on a personal leave and scheduled to be back on the 30th of September when we will be able to reschedule patients," the email read.
Hill felt something was wrong. She tried contacting the clinic to cancel her surgery and get a refund. She says she called the clinic more than 50 times and sent several emails, but no one has called her back.
She says she can't afford to get the surgery done by another doctor unless she gets her money back.
"I'm really angry and I feel helpless," she said.
CBC News went to Kara's clinic in Vaughan and found it cleared out. During a recent visit to his Toronto location, staff at a health clinic where Kara rents space said one day he and his staff stopped showing up. CBC News also tried to contact him in person at his home in Vaughan, but no one answered the door.
Attempts to contact four of his staff members through email, phone and social media were also unsuccessful. Staff cell phone numbers provided to patients and the clinic's main number have been disconnected.
Lawsuit claims rent cheques bounced
After Vitale couldn't reach Kara or his staff ahead of her Oct. 4 appointment, she drove to the clinic in Vaughan that day. Instead of getting answers, both units the clinic previously occupied were empty and a legal letter was taped to the doors stating the lease was terminated and the locks changed.
Kleinburg Village Centre Inc. filed a civil lawsuit against Kara and the Dr. Kara Medicine Professional Corporation on Sept. 23 for $664,608, alleging he and his company breached two commercial leases. According to the statement of claim, Kara signed a lease to rent two units in the building in August, but in September both rent cheques bounced due to insufficient funds.
A week later, Kara's office manager informed the landlord Dr. Kara Medicine Professional Corporation "was insolvent and that the business was not doing well," the claim states.
A statement of defence has not yet been filed and the claim has not yet been tested in court.
There are also liens against two vehicles and laser equipment in the name of Dr. Kara Medical Professional Corporation.
While several women told CBC News they've filed reports with York Regional Police, the force refused to confirm whether it's investigating Kara. But a spokesperson said if someone files a report, it will be investigated thoroughly.
Previous lawsuits and complaints
The Canadian Society of Plastic Surgeons says it's recently received a handful of complaints about Kara. The executive director says the doctor hasn't been a member of the society since 2018. Those reaching out with complaints were referred to the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario (CPSO).
CPSO, which investigates and disciplines its members, says it's prohibited from disclosing whether it's presently investigating the surgeon, but did say Kara has previously been investigated and was formally cautioned.
In 2017, he was cautioned by CPSO's complaints and reports committee for violating advertising rules by using before-and-after photos in a magazine ad.
"Given his repeated breaches of advertising policy and regulation, the committee was not satisfied that he would change his behaviour without further guidance," a summary of the complaint and decision reads.
Kara's website currently features more than 200 before-and-after photos, which were also visible in 2018 when CBC Marketplace did an investigation into how breast implants were being marketed by Toronto surgeons.
The CPSO also cautioned Kara about informed consent and documentation in February of 2020 after a patient complained she received larger breast implants than she initially agreed to when Kara was removing her current ones due to pain and replacing them with new ones.
The patient and her husband filed a civil lawsuit against Kara in April, his company and an employee for more than $250,000 alleging physical and emotional pain for the larger implants. The claim states it caused her to go from a "C" bra cup size to a "DDD" at the age of 72.
In his statement of defence, Kara said the patient consented to the larger size verbally and in writing prior to the surgery. He denies any negligence or breach of duty of care.
The claim has not yet been tested in court.
Safety group says Kara's actions add to existing lack of trust
The Breast Implant Safety Alliance's (BISA) Canadian representative Julie Elliott says the alliance isn't associated with Kara, but she's had women reach out asking about the situation.
"I think this is really sad because he is still a doctor, and he took an oath of doing no harm and unfortunately, he didn't live up to that," she said.
Elliott says the situation is contributing to an already existing mistrust between some patients and plastic surgeons.
Vitale says she's given up on getting a tummy tuck for now because she's lost faith in the profession. If she does look for someone else, she's hoping to get a recommendation from her doctor.
"That was what I was looking for, is that change and for him to help me [feel comfortable]. And unfortunately, he couldn't," she said. "I don't think he wanted to help anybody. He left."