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San Francisco woman channels pain of mother's death from botched surgery into art, activism

Susan Lieu avenges death of her mother through art, activism and now a book
Susan Lieu avenges death of her mother through art, activism and now a book 04:16

When Susan Lieu was 11-years old, her mother died of a botched plastic surgery in 1996 by a San Francisco doctor who had numerous complaints against him and had his license to practice suspended by the California Medical Board.

Phoung Ha, known by her American name Jennifer, had owned two successful nail salons. And as a Vietnamese American immigrant she had made a comfortable life for her family.

Lieu began expressing the trauma, pain, and healing with a one woman show "140lbs: How Beauty Killed My Mother" in 2019, and now she has put her personal journey into the pages of a new book, "The Manicurist's Daughter" that was released earlier this month.

Phoung Ha with her daugher, Susan. Ha, who was also known as Jennifer, died of a botched plastic surgery in 1996. CBS

"It really did take putting on a one woman show and writing the book to just feel close and to know her (mother)," said Lieu. "And now I just have a much clearer picture, and I am peace with my mother's death."

But much of healing may have come from turning tragedy into change.

At the time of her mother's death, the family had no legal or financial means to hold the plastic surgeon accountable, because of the Medical Injury Compensation Reform Act of 1975 that put a cap of $250,000 on pain and suffering damages in cases involving medical malpractice in the state of California.

Carmen Balber with Consumer Watchdog had been fighting to change the law for decades.

"In 1975, $250,000 was a reasonable amount of money, but today it is only worth $50,000 when adjusted to inflation," explained Balber. "The medical industry, a combination of the malpractice insurance companies and the physicians lobby had spent millions of dollars over the decades to keep law in the place."

Advocates fighting for change, began recruiting victims and their family members to tell their stories, including Lieu, who spoke in from medical boards and lawmakers.

"One of the most important ways that an organization like mine can make a change in the law is by telling the stories of families who are impacted by the law," said Balber.

In 2022, they succeeded in changing the law. Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill 35 that raises the cap an injured patient and their families could recoup for pain, suffering and even the loss of life.

The bill, which went into effect on Jan. 1, 2023, established two separate caps. In the case of a wrongful death, the cap increased to $500,000 and another $50,000 each year until reaching $1 Million.

In medical malpractice cases not involving death, the cap increased to $350,000, with $40,000 increases until it reaches $750,000.

"I tried to avenge my mother's death by seeking revenge on the plastic surgeon, and when he died, I didn't have an enemy anymore," said Lieu. "I realized I needed to shift this pain, to leave a legacy for my mother."

The surgeon died in 2014.

Lieu will hold a reading of her memoir, "The Manicurist's Daughter" at the Great Star Theater in San Francisco's Chinatown on Thursday Mar. 28 at 7:30 p.m. Along with reading excerpts from the book, she will also discuss intergenerational trauma and healing.

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