By Will Norton-Mosher
Flights from the United States to Mexico are frequent and full of travelers. Some of the passengers going will be there for business, and some for travel, but others will be there to iron out their wrinkles, to suck out their fat, or to cap their teeth with porcelain veneers.
Many of these people are traveling to Mexico because everything there, including plastic surgery, is cheaper. The clinics are built and run on cheap land and utilities. Even after spending $700 on round trip airfare and $300 on a hotel, surgery outside of North America costs half as much as it does in the States.
Medical tourism has emerged in the last 40 years because of new procedures, cheap travel, and aging baby boomers. According to a cosmetic surgery travel guide, Beauty from Afar by Jeff Schult, two-thirds of mothers would like to receive plastic surgery in order to restore pre-pregnancy figures, only the cost is too high.
After giving birth to two children, Sara Howell, a 50-year-old accountant from Tallahassee, FL, now wants to return to her original weight. She’s tried dieting and exercise, but both options failed. She can’t afford the surgery on her own, and her insurance won’t cover the cost.
"It’s upsetting when you can’t control your own body and no amount of dieting or exercise can change you," Howell told City on a Hill Press via email.
"I used to love swimming, but stopped after having children because my skin became so loose that I couldn’t wear a bathing suit," Howell said, explaining that her uncontrollable figure even caused her serious depression.
Howell has made plans to travel to Mexico for surgery later this month.
Susan Simply, a 58-year-old New Yorker, has battled obesity since high school.
"I’ve never been able to look in the mirror without a shudder," Simply said. "For me it is more about a fundamental self image. [I want to] look at myself in the mirror and not feel the self disgust that has been pervasive for as long as I can remember."
Like Howell, Simply’s desired procedures are also not covered by her insurance and she has considered traveling, but is reluctant to take the plunge.
"I’d go outside of my local area if I were convinced the medical team, the procedure, expertise, aftercare, and all other variables met my expectations," she said.
Simply’s apprehension is not unwarranted. Howard Rosenberg, a plastic surgeon who has been operating in Silicon Valley since 1976, cautions surgery hopefuls like Simply about receiving surgery abroad.
"When you travel out of this country you really don’t know what you’re getting," Dr. Rosenberg said.
He explained that besides the risk of receiving surgery in a foreign country, it is difficult to properly treat complications if procedures go wrong because of the distance. But, he added, this doesn’t mean that procedures in the United States are always safe and sound.
"If you’ve got a problem, then you’re stuck," Dr. Rosenberg said. "The bottom line is, if you’re going to do it in this country or if you’re going to do it in that country, you’ve got to do your homework."
Dani Heart, a 53-year-old woman living in Colorado, is staunchly opposed to gastric bypass surgery, whether it is inside or outside of the United States.
The surgery works to divide the stomach into two chambers, with a smaller section on top. The idea is to reduce the patient’s food intake to instigate massive weight loss.
Heart recieved gastric bypass surgery in the United States in 2000, and shortly after realized that something was wrong.
"Soon after I had the surgery I had chronic vomiting and nausea, which didn’t allow me keep food down," Heart said. "My surgeon dismissed all my problems, saying that they were all in my head. It took me a great deal of time to find another doctor who would take me in to do the
Heart could only stomach broth and pureed soup for 18 months after the surgery. During this time, she endured constant vomiting and suffered from nausea, vertigo, sleep apnea, hair loss, silent stroke, anemia, joint pain, and a case of osteoporosis so severe her jaw broke during a visit to the dentist.
However, her problems did not end there. During the recovery period, Heart was forced to stop her business, and the cost of care forced her to dip into her children’s college funds in order to pay for her medical expenses.
"American doctors are reluctant to take patients who already had weight loss surgery, so these people are left without a doctor once their surgery goes wrong," Heart said.
As a result of her experience Heart now works with people who have received gastric bypass surgery and are trying to reverse the procedure. She has worked to get free flights for people traveling for gastric bypass reversal surgeries and has helped pay for the cost of their hotels. She has given numerous interviews about her experience, including one for Korean television.
According to Heart, Korean doctors began to perform more weight loss surgeries due to the influence of fast food on the national diet and expanding waistlines.
Korea, like Mexico, is a hot spot for cosmetic procedures, as is South America, Southeast Asia, the Dominican Republic, Brazil, Argentina, Thailand, and Malaysia. These countries all vie for the same lucrative surgical market and face fierce competition from each other that consequently drives prices to the floor.
There are also procedures performed overseas that were illegal in the United States until recently. Silicone breast implants, for example, were banned in the United States after they were blamed for causing autoimmune diseases such as Lupus, Scleroderma, and Arthritis. The ban was only lifted in North America last November.
Dr. Rosenberg explained that silicone was never taken off the market overseas. "In fact, the gel implants often brought superior results to the saline implants," he said. "Then it was proven that they didn’t cause those [autoimmune] diseases."
The rising demand for plastic surgery in other countries has sparked its own tourist industry. Websites such as medjourneys.com and globalchoicehealthcare.com perpetuate the booming industry. Brazil publishes a surgery-themed magazine, Plastica Y Beleza and the Malaysian government even subsidizes advertising campaigns for clinics.
Kee Phaik Cheen, the state committee chairman of Malaysia, addressed the Presse Agence France in 2005 boasting about cosmetic travel.
"As tourism chief, I am happy. You can enjoy the sun, the beach, and go home with a good set of new boobs," Cheen said.
Marilyn Wann, self-proclaimed fat activist and author of Fat!so?, is disgusted by the extremes that people go to in order to alter their appearances. Wann believes that fat people cannot and should not be changed, and likened the way that society treats fat people to a witch hunt.
"There are all kinds of punishments that are heaped on fat people in our popular imagination," she said. "Our public health establishment and our insurers, and our advertising and our media are piling logs on the fire and they’re saying burn the fatties."
Many UC Santa Cruz students, such as Calia Johnson, are opposed to plastic surgery of any sort.
"People on TV look so young. There’s this whole don’t let yourself look old if you get old thing–it’s this whole immortality idea," said Johnson, a Kresge student. "But you’re always going to get older."
Elizabeth Gibert, an English major at UCSC, recalls her mother’s conflict with plastic surgery after suffering from breast cancer.
When the cancer didn’t respond to radiation therapy, the doctors preformed a mastectomy. But when the doctors suggested an implant, she refused.
"They can give you another breast, but she chose not to receive one," Gibert said. "My mom doesn’t need [implants] to be who she is."