SAN ANTONIO – Thousands of people yearning for a better body are visiting Mexican plastic surgery clinics that offer makeovers at a third of the cost in the United States.
The industry has flourished, with new clinics touting their services on billboards, newspaper ads and television commercials across South Texas.
While some full service clinics offer American-style standards with inviting waiting areas and scrubbed surgical suites, those images mask the downside of a booming business that has littered northern Mexico with backward operations run by physicians with questionable credentials, the San Antonio Express-News reported Sunday.
In more than two months of reporting on both sides of the border, the newspaper found a largely unregulated system where patients can enter a dentist's office that also advertises plastic surgery and leave with a nose job performed by an unlicensed doctor.
Through interviews with doctors, patients, government regulators and families, the Express-News learned some patients were left horribly scarred or fighting severe infections from botched surgeries.
But because of poor record keeping, weak oversight and a system that discourages lawsuits, it is impossible to know the number of injuries or deaths in Mexican clinics.
U.S. doctors along the border said they're all too familiar with the problem. Some have begun to specialize in "secondary repair" undoing damage done in Mexico because so many patients have required reconstruction.
Dr. Tolbert Wilkinson, a San Antonio plastic surgeon, said he's seen dozens of women return from the border with broken or slipping breast implants, infections and large scars.
"Ugly scars are coming from the border," said Wilkinson, one of the few Texas surgeons who is willing to treat people after things go wrong in Mexico. Many doctors won't accept those patients because the liability is too great.
A Lakehills mother of four who asked only to be identified as Lynn claims she was disfigured in December from plastic surgery at the Centro de Ginecologia y Obstetricia (search) in Nuevo Laredo. The newspaper said the clinic apparently was not accredited.
"I kept bleeding on my suture, and I didn't know what it was," said Lynn, who returned to the clinic and had surgery to repair her bleeding stomach incision.
The Mexican clinic is co-owned by David Hernandez (search), a San Antonio-based marketer who goes by the name Dr. Dave, though he is not a doctor on either side of the border.
He acknowledged that Lynn experienced complications after undergoing surgery but said he thought they were successfully treated in the follow-up visit.
But the infection returned in late December, and she had trouble standing up straight.
"I still can't stand up perfectly straight and it's been eight weeks," she said.
Lynn went to see Wilkinson, who discovered she had fluids trapped inside that hadn't drained properly. Wilkinson put her on new antibiotics and has been draining the fluids out of a hole on her lower abdomen.
Asked if she do it all over again, she said: "Oh, absolutely not."
Some patients can't be saved. Plastic surgeons in Brownsville said they couldn't help two women who died from gangrene (search) that developed from infections after their surgeries in Matamoros.
One woman's skin peeled off when emergency room doctors lifted her from one bed to another.
"I have never seen a worse case of gangrene anywhere — not even in Mexico," said Dr. Rafael Arredondo, who was working in the emergency room when the woman's husband brought her in.