Common Operation Across Border Goes Horribly Wrong
Vanderbilt Professor of Surgery Dr. Willie Melvin
By Jennifer Kraus Consumer Investigator
NASHVILLE, Tenn. – NewsChannel 5 Investigates takes a look at the growing business of medical tourism and what can go wrong when you cross the border for health care.
For some people, health care in this country is too expensive. Those who are really desperate are crossing the border for care. The investigation raises questions about the safety of doing that. Some are paying a high price.
After struggling with her weight for years, Rhonda Christian headed to Mexico for gastric bypass surgery.
Rhonda's mom, Marcy Christian, went with her.
"We thought it was no big deal," said Marcy.
Marcy told NewsChannel 5 Investigates she had no idea her daughter would wind up the way she is now. More than two months after the surgery, Rhonda is still fighting just to survive. She's hooked to tubes and drains.
She can't eat, drink or even walk. In fact, she can barely more. Rhonda calls the operation "the worst mistake of my life."
"I have never experienced this amount of pain, discomfort, embarrassment, disaster," said Rhonda.
Rhonda said she went to Mexico because her insurance would not cover the operation and she could not afford the surgery in the U.S.
She'd gone online and found rave reviews about something called medical tourism. It's where you go to another country for surgery that's advertised as being just as safe as it is in the U.S., but at half the price.
Rhonda and her mother flew to Puerto Vallarta and had a room right on the beach. After her surgery, they were supposed to go sight-seeing.
"That was the whole point. Not only do you get the surgical procedure, but you get to have a great vacation. I even set up a whale watching tour," explained Rhonda.
There were problems at the hospital.
According to the Christians, what was supposed to be a one- to two-hour procedure turned into a 12-hour ordeal after a key surgical instrument broke. The hospital did not have another one, and Rhonda was left on the operating table all day long.
"This was supposed to be a place that specializes in this gastric bypass surgery for weight loss. They don't have the equipment there and had to go borrow it and sterilize it when it got there right in the middle of surgery," said Marcy.
The day after surgery, the hospital sent Rhonda back to her hotel room.
"With nothing, nothing - not an aspirin, not a Band-aid, nothing to use for that feeding tube," said Marcy.
Rhonda then needed a second surgery to fix problems from the first one. She developed a severe infection. When she told the hospital she'd run out of money, they said there was nothing else they could do for her.
"They butchered her. They absolutely butchered her and robbed her of her savings," said Marcy.
Vanderbilt Professor of Surgery Dr. Willie Melvin is quite familiar with Rhonda's case. He worked to save Rhonda's life after her mother rushed her back to the U.S.
In reflecting on Rhonda's hospital experience in Mexico, Melvin said, "They didn't have what they needed to take care of this patient."
Melvin said doctors and hospitals in other countries are not regulated as they are here. Sadly, he said, Rhonda's situation is not that unusual.
"We do see quite a few patients going across the border to Mexico, Brazil, having surgery and having a problem and then coming to us [Vanderbilt Medical Center]. It's happening more and more," said Melvin.
"It was supposed to be a quick little operation and then off to whale watching. I didn't think it was possible for this much to go wrong," said Marcy.
"You get barraged about how safe and simple and cheaper it is. But I am paying a price beyond anything I would have imagined," said Rhonda.
Rhonda's medical bills are more than $500,000 and she still faces half a dozen more surgeries.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates talked with the company that packaged Rhonda's trip and surgery. The owner of the Medical Tourism Corporation, Deepak Datta, said all surgeries, including gastric bypass surgeries have risks which is something they said they make clear to all patients.
The doctors at Vanderbilt Medical Center said many of Rhonda's problems were due to how she was treated, or rather not treated, after the complications arose.
Datta said that before sending a patient anywhere, his company makes sure that the doctor and the hospital are board-certified in the country where they are practicing and that the doctor has a diploma from a medical school. Standards vary from country to country.