CARACAS, Distrito Capital - Eager to resurrect her failed marriage, Mercedes dreamed of having a shapely rear end. A risky, potentially deadly, silicone injection technique beckoned.
She said yes. Now she rues that day.
"It hurts so much I cannot sit down for even five minutes," said the 45-year-old, her voice quivering. She is so embarrassed she won't give her last name.
Thus goes body worship in Venezuela, where undergoing plastic surgery is as common as going to the dentist and beauty pageants are like a religion.
Two years ago Mercedes underwent a procedure that has killed 15 people in Venezuela since 2011. It involves having a gel-like substance called a synthetic biopolymer shot into the body.
It is not put inside an implant, but rather flows like an injection and spreads through tissues, alas uncontrollably.
Mercedes received 560cc of the stuff in each buttock. It was a low point in her life when she was desperate to rekindle her marriage and win back her estranged husband.
"I did no research on what it was. I just wanted to know who did the best job," Mercedes told AFP while waiting at a clinic. Her dream is to get the silicone out of her body.
The original operation cost the equivalent of $800. Days later, she started feeling an intense pain. She has learned to live with it, as she has with stinging criticism from her family.
"I ask God and the Virgin for forgiveness so I can get out of this. This is no way to live," she said, her eyes clenched shut.
No to biopolymers
Astrid de la Rosa, who underwent the same procedure only to see the gel migrate to her lower back and hips, created a support foundation in 2011.
It is called the "No to Biopolymers Foundation" and has recorded 15 deaths so far from complications resulting from this beauty enhancing technique.
The foundation has knowledge of 40,000 people who opted for the procedure, and the number is growing even though in November of 2012 the Venezuelan government banned the use of use of stuffing-like materials such as the synthetic biopolymers for aesthetic purposes.
The authorities have brought charges against some doctors and beauticians who continue to offer the service.
"There are even recent cases of parents who give their daughters the biopolymer butt and breast treatment for their 15th birthday and now they regret it," said De la Rosa.
Omar Guerrero, a 35-year-old trainer at a gym in the western city of San Cristobal, shot the gel into his pecs to look more buff and is now an utter wreck.
The polymers migrated to muscles between his ribs, tightening his thorax and limiting his breathing. He's been flat out in bed for two years.
"I cannot do exercise. I cannot run. I am a living dead man," said Guerrero.
With his artificially toned up muscles, he said, people shun him in hospitals and treat him as if he were HIV-positive.
He went to one of two doctors known to be offering a technique to try to rid people of the stuff they pumped into themselves.
One is a Caracas plastic surgeon named Daniel Slobodianik. In the waiting room of his office it is standing room only.
He says that since 2011 he must have seen about 400 patients with this problem.
The legion of walking wounded in his clinic includes: a 60-year-old woman who can barely move she is in so much pain; two cousins who had the procedure done at the same time and while not yet smarting, are scared by what they are hearing; and a woman who is trying to get pregnant and is worrying what the silicone in her body might do to a foetus.
Slobodianik withdraws the silicone in a $6,000 operation that is still considered experimental by the Venezuelan Society for Plastic Surgery, as there is no guarantee of complete recovery or even improvement.
Jesus Pereira, president of the society, said the only time it endorses the procedure is when the gel is actually at the point of bursting out of the body.
"It is a special situation that can cause septicemia and with it, death," he said, referring to a state in which there is infection throughout the body.
A better approach is to treat the problem with steroids, which gives pretty good results, he added.
But Slobodianik said he has already operated on 50 women and three or four men.
Still, some of the gel will always remain in the body, he said. "It is an incurable disease."
As for Mercedes, she got her husband back but sadly will not take her clothes off in front of him because her rear is so bruised. And she can no longer even have sex.