A woman who lost nearly 100 pounds and had a tummy tuck to remove the resulting folds of saggy skin has told how she was left dicing with death after a flesh-eating bug ate huge chunks of her stomach.
Weighing over 300 pounds at her heaviest and determined to lose weight, events planner Laura Franks, 36, had gastric bypass surgery in 2013, but looked "like an empty bag" when her sudden weight loss left aprons of excess flesh hanging around her tummy.
Wanting to restore her confidence once and for all, Franks, of Atlanta, Ga., paid $5,000 for a tummy tuck, liposuction and Brazilian bum lift at a clinic in Cali, Colombia, in February this year.
But, instead of getting a dream body, she caught a flesh-eating bug, which ravaged her stomach, saying: "I was convinced I’d be going home in a body bag.”
Franks is speaking out about her nightmare experience just as the British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons (BAAPS) issued a stark warning about Brazilian bum lifts, following the death of two women who'd had the procedure.
But, far from having surgery on a whim, Franks, whose boyfriend is a rapper and actor who goes by the name of Solo Styles, researched everything thoroughly before proceeding.
“I looked at places all over the world, including here in the USA," she said.
“I wasn’t set on going anywhere, in particular, I just wanted what was best for me, but I eventually found a place in Colombia that looked great," Franks said. "That’s a decision I now regret every single day."
“But the pictures of other patients looked fantastic and people sounded really happy with what they’d had done," she said. “I contacted the clinic and got a reply right away. While surgeons from different clinics had ignored me, this felt like a really personal, professional reply.”
Franks was an active youngster but had started gaining weight at university - leaving her desperately self-conscious about her size when she hit 300 pounds.
Discovering she was eligible for a gastric bypass, where surgical staples are used to create a small pouch at the top of the stomach, which then connects directly to the small intestine, she happily went under the knife.
To her delight, her weight plummeted - but she was left with saggy skin more unsightly than the fat it had replaced.
“I was left with an awful lot of excess skin," she said. “I worked really hard to try and tone up but, while the muscles underneath were getting stronger, the skin stayed put. It was difficult to have lost all that weight, then be dealing with another body confidence issue."
“I looked like an empty bag, and whatever I tried, the skin wouldn’t tone up," she said.
Eventually, Franks decided surgery was her only solution and spent over a year thoroughly researching where to go, pouring over online reviews and testimonials and following the journeys of other patients via Instagram.
And in February this year, despite her boyfriend warning her against it, she headed to Colombia.
“My boyfriend told me I was beautiful the way I was, and that I didn’t need to change anything, but I went ahead anyway as I had this planned from before I'd met him," Franks said. “Now I wish every day that I had listened.”
Following blood tests at a nearby hospital, Franks arrived at the clinic on February 28 this year, describing it as a “beautiful, welcoming building.”
Changing into her surgical stockings and gown, everything seemed fine, but when she was taken down to the operating room, doubts began to creep in.
“I looked around and things just didn’t seem right. There were plastic patio chairs in the room and personal items, like the staff's bags," she said. “Panic was setting in when I felt the prick of a needle, as the anesthetic was administered. People say to me now, ‘Why did you go ahead? Why didn’t you say something?' They don’t understand is how quickly this all happened."
“I had literally minutes to take it all in and was out cold before I could tell them to hold on," Franks said. “I actually remember waking during the surgery and feeling intense pain. I tried to shout out, but I was so sedated that I’ve no idea if I was making any noise. It was horrendous.”
After coming to, Franks was taken to a recovery room and, for the next couple of days, she felt surprisingly well.
However, five days after her operation, her bandages were removed for the first time, revealing a large red blotch across her stomach.
Initially, she said she was told that it was just her body needing to oxygenate, and was sent for hourly sessions in a hyperbaric chamber - where patients' natural healing processes are enhanced as they inhale 100 percent oxygen.
Over the coming days, though, she felt worse and worse, and her skin around the zone of her tummy tuck began to blister and die.
Following debridement surgery – a procedure to remove the dead and damaged tissue – she was also fitted with a wound vac to seal off the area and help it heal quicker.
“I literally felt like I was dying," she said. "When I got no better, I was transferred to another hospital, where they immediately put me in isolation. I was screaming out in pain. An infectious disease expert came in and tried to calm me down by talking to me about home and family he has in the USA."
“He also told me that I had a very serious infection and needed surgery," she said. "I couldn’t see a way of getting better, though."
Three bouts of surgery to cut away her dying flesh and, hopefully, stem the infection, later, on March 29 – more than a month after arriving in Colombia – Franks was allowed to fly home on the proviso she went straight to another hospital.
Wanting to be near her family, she flew to Denver, Colo., where her loved ones had organized a team of surgeons to be ready for her arrival.
After testing her wound, medics confirmed she had contracted three different types of dangerous bacteria – two of which had not been seen in the U.S. before.
“Doctors believe the bacteria came from contaminated equipment," she said. "Of course, I don’t know for sure, but my opinion is that it came from the clinic, as I was already having symptoms before being transferred anywhere else.”
As the bacteria was so drug-resistant, it seemed at first as if nothing would be able to save her.
Then, at the 11th hour, a specialist drug was flown in through the Centers for Disease Control.
“I called it my unicorn juice,” she said. “It thankfully worked, and my insurer picked up a lot of the costs, but, as it was so expensive and I needed a large dose, I have been left with considerable medical bills of around $10,000 myself.”
She is also speaking out to warn others not to take online reviews as gospel, as she believes companies often delete or edit negative ones.
“I never saw anything worrying when I did extensive research. I know now that it wasn’t an informed decision – I was simply seeing what somebody else wanted me to see,” she said. “But I don’t even want to tell people to do thorough research. I want them to realize that surgery simply isn’t worth it. You must learn to love yourself. I wish I had.
“I now live with daily pain, but I am also happy to be alive, and want what I’ve been through to help others," Franks said. “When this happened to me, I hadn’t even told my family what I was doing. They thought I was just on a vacation, so when everything went wrong I had to make a very difficult call home, telling my parents it may be the last time I ever spoke to them."
“I am incredibly thankful to be alive, and I really want to encourage others to love themselves as they are," she said. "I’ve learned the hard way that surgery won’t change the way you, or anybody else, looks at you. It’s just not worth it.”
“The risks traveling abroad for plastic surgery can be significant," Dr. Renato Saltz, president of International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery (ISAPS), said. “One of the most important things a prospective patient can do is educate themselves about the many aspects involved - the actual plastic surgeon or cosmetic surgeon who would be performing the procedure, the actual medical facility that the procedure will be performed at the actual cosmetic procedure itself."
“In deciding to have a cosmetic surgery abroad, potentially with a surgeon that you have never met, it is extremely important that you do your homework on who they are, what their credentials and experience are to perform that specific cosmetic procedure, as well as the medical facility where the procedure is being performed," Saltz said. “For anyone considering having plastic surgery abroad, we recommend that you start your journey by visiting our website www.ISAPS.org to find out more about cosmetic procedures and review our member directory to find an ISAPS plastic surgeon."
"All ISAPS members have undergone a rigorous application review process by their peers to be accepted and are board-certified in aesthetic plastic surgery or their equivalent) in their country,” Saltz said.