The dangers of getting plastic surgery overseas

Vashti Myers thought she was making the right choice when she decided to undergo cosmetic surgery in the Dominican Republic.

Myers chose a doctor for her tummy tuck and Brazilian butt lift who had operated successfully on her aunt and cousin. Myers, a mom of three from Upper Marlboro, says she researched the doctor for a few years. She saw two negative reviews, but figured there are always disgruntled customers.

Most importantly, getting the work done in the Dominican Republic would save her thousands of dollars.

But when she flew to the island last September and prepared for the procedure, she felt something wasn’t right. She says the equipment looked outdated, and the doctor performed the operation in an area of the hospital that looked more like a basement.

“To be honest, if I hadn’t been slightly sedated, I probably wouldn’t have gone through with it,” Myers says.

She returned to the United States with what she says was a botched tummy tuck. She had major scarring, an off-center belly button, and a lot of pain. Myers went to the Emergency Room (ER) at Anne Arundel Medical Center where a doctor diagnosed her with a kidney infection.

The ER doctor then referred her to Tripp Holton, MD, a plastic surgeon with Anne Arundel Medical Group (AAMG) Plastic Surgery, to treat the large open wound on her abdomen.

“I should have just saved my money and had it here,” Myers says.

The risks of medical tourism

Medical tourism — the practice of traveling out of the country for discounted medical procedures — may sound tempting. People want to combine an overseas vacation with that plastic surgery they’ve always wanted. Plus they can recover in a beautiful location.

But consider the risks before booking those plane tickets, say Dr. Holton and Devinder Singh, MD, also a plastic surgeon with AAMG Plastic Surgery.

A 2016 report in the Centers for Disease Control and Population’s Emerging Infectious Diseases journal identified 21 people in six states, including Maryland, infected with rapidly growing mycobacteria after traveling to the Dominican Republic for cosmetic surgery. Eight of these people were hospitalized, some more than once, according to the study.

In 2014, a Long Island woman died from complications following a liposuction and tummy tuck that she got in the Dominican Republic, according to a news report.

AAMG Plastic Surgery sees between five and eight cases of botched plastic surgery each year due to medical tourism.

“We see the downside of it very often,” Dr. Holton says.

A desire to save money is usually what prompts people to travel outside of the U.S. for plastic surgery.

“Plastic surgery has always been a cost-sensitive specialty,” says Dr. Singh. “But when you travel to another country for these procedures, you may pay for it in other ways.”

Drs. Singh and Holton say the surgeries patients seek out overseas run the gamut from tummy tucks to breast augmentations and liposuction.

But they say patients are gambling with things including a doctor’s medical credentials, the outcome of the surgery, and their own safety.

In America, surgeons follow a high standard of care. This includes the “time out” rule, meaning that before any operation, everyone involved must stop and double check that they are working on the right person and the right body part.

Drs. Holton and Singh say that doesn’t always happen overseas. It’s also highly unlikely you will be able to see your plastic surgeon for regular follow up appointments unless you stay overseas for an extended period of time.

The American Board of Plastic Surgery also cautions that patients should avoid typical “vacation activities” after surgery – including sunbathing, swimming and drinking alcohol. The board also says long flights or surgery can increase the risk of developing pulmonary embolism and blood clots. It suggests waiting five to seven days after most procedures before flying. The recommended wait after facial procedures, such as facelifts, eyelid surgery and nose jobs, is longer at seven to 10 days.

How to find the right plastic surgeon

Drs. Holton and Singh have some advice for finding the right plastic surgeon.

  • Check out the doctor’s training and education.
  • Make sure the doctor is certified by the American Board of Plastic Surgery, the only plastic surgery board recognized by the American Board of Medical Specialties.
  • Ask questions about the doctor’s experience. Has he or she done these types of surgeries before? You should be able to see before and after pictures of the doctor’s work.
  • Review the doctor’s licensing history with your state’s medical board and see if he or she has received any disciplinary actions.

Myers says people tried to warn her about the dangers of getting plastic surgery in the Dominican Republic, but she didn’t listen.

“You are definitely going to get a higher level of care in the United States,” she says.

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