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'You only get one body': Mexico attack, recent deaths highlight risks of medical tourism

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A Black woman who reportedly traveled to Mexico to receive a tummy tuck was abducted with three other people in an attack that experts say highlights the risks of going abroad for more affordable medical care.

The U.S. Embassy in Mexico said in a statement that “unknown assailants” kidnapped the four Americans at gunpoint “in an incident in which an innocent Mexican citizen was tragically killed.” Two of the four Americans were also killed in the March 3 attack and one was injured, the Justice Department said. The two survivors returned to the U.S., where they received medical treatment.

The group had traveled to Matamoros, which is located in Tamaulipas, the Mexican state that the U.S State Department advises Americans to avoid due to crime.

“I know women who have gone to Matamoros to have their plastic surgery done. Then they go to the beach to recover, and then they wake up dead the next day,” Dr. Filiberto Rodriguez, a plastic surgeon in Edinburgh, Texas, just miles from the border with Mexico, told Yahoo News. “This is not a vacation place. The drug war is real. There's violence in the streets routinely.”

National Guard and military vehicles take part in an operation to transfer two of the four U.Ss citizens kidnapped in Mexico's crime-ridden northeast back to Brownsville, Texas, after the other two were found dead, in Matamoros, Mexico, on March 7.
National Guard and military vehicles take part in an operation to transfer two of the four U.Ss citizens kidnapped in Mexico's crime-ridden northeast back to Brownsville, Texas, after the other two were found dead, in Matamoros, Mexico, on March 7. (STR/AFP via Getty Images)

The number of Americans participating in medical tourism has risen in recent years. In 2007, the American Journal of Medicine found that 750,000 Americans did so. By 2017, that number had hit 1.4 million. Mexico is among the top destinations for medical tourists, according to Patients Without Borders, a consulting company that provides information on the medical tourism industry.

It’s not uncommon for people to travel abroad for medical procedures, but the practice can be risky. According to the Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention, there are several factors — and potential complications — that patients should consider, including continuity and quality of care, air travel, antibiotic resistance, infectious disease and communication challenges.

“You have people from San Francisco going all the way down to Tijuana. People all the way from Colorado going into northern Mexico. People from the East Coast flying to the Dominican Republic. And they take a lot of risks,” Rodriguez said.

In 2013, the American Society of Plastic Surgeons found that 8% of all plastic surgery was done on Black patients, which equaled more than 1.2 million cosmetic procedures. For Black patients, cosmetic surgery procedures increased from 768,512 in 2015 to 1.7 million in 2020, according to the American Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery.

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While data is scarce on the mortality rates of Americans traveling overseas for cosmetic procedures, there have been a number of news reports in recent years of Black patients, particularly women, dying as a result of complications from the surgeries.

“We are not having enough conversations about the impact plastic surgery is having on Black women,” Dr. Faith Crittenden, a resident physician at Yale-New Haven Children’s Hospital, said on Twitter. “Though BBLs aren’t favorable operations in the US. That’s not stopping our patients from traveling for them,” she said, referring to the Brazilian butt-lift procedure.

“What happened in Mexico is only the tip of the iceberg of this problem with plastic surgery culture and its impact on Black women,” Crittenden added. “It’s time to talk about it. It’s time to care. We in medicine are doing a disservice by ignoring this growing problem, by not providing the proper education to our patients and letting them know the dangers and harms.”

In May 2022, Shacare Terry of Indiana lost her life after traveling to Mexico and the Dominican Republic for weight-loss surgeries. That following December, Sucretta Tolliver, a mother in Chicago, died after a cosmetic surgery in the Dominican Republic.

From left: Shacare Terry, Sucretta Tolliver, Keuana Weaver, Markita McIntyre and Alicia Williams.
From left: Shacare Terry, Sucretta Tolliver, Keuana Weaver, Markita McIntyre and Alicia Williams. (Facebook)

In January 2021, Keuana Weaver, a 38-year-old California woman, died duriing plastic surgery in Tijuana. And in May of that year, 34-year-old Markita McIntyre, a mother of three from Biloxi, Miss., died while getting gastrectomy surgery in Tijuana. Alicia Williams, an Alabama teacher, died in 2019 from complications after cosmetic surgery in the Dominican Republic.

“Every week we have [a] death [in] the ER from botched surgeries done in Mexico,” Rodriguez said. “Once you've gone out of the country, you really don't have any recourse whatsoever. And then if you die, you die.”

In 2021, Renee Donaldson, a Black social media influencer, apologized for promoting Clinichub, a company that arranged cosmetic surgeries with a Turkish company, after British women who received surgeries there experienced serious complications.

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Experts found that the price difference is one of the main reasons Americans participate in medical tourism. “If you're looking at cash prices, the apples-to-apples comparison, you're looking at about a 40% to 60% decrease in going internationally for the same procedure,” David Vequist, founder of the Center for Medical Tourism research, told Yahoo News.

But some doctors question if the price is worth the risk. “It's real surgery, cutting into people, dissecting, cutting off skin, sucking up fat; it's surgery,” Rodriguez said.

As the medical tourism industry continues to grow, Vequist estimates that more than $264 million will be spent on it in Mexico this year alone.

“I think people need to take cosmetic surgical procedures seriously and realize that their body is not an experiment,” Rodriguez said. “You only get one body.”