Weight Loss Surgery Across the Border

Losing weight is the number one New Year's goal and the one most people fail. Now, as obesity rates keep going up, more Americans are trying something drastic to lose weight and get healthy: weight loss surgery across the border.

Carrie Wilson will tell you she loves food. Growing up she says the best things happened around the dining room table. That love of food meant she has battled weight gain since junior high school. The cabbage diet, Jenny Craig, the hard-boiled egg diet, the heart doctor diet to diet pills and Weight Watchers, she tried everything only to find she would regain the weight as soon as she stopped following the diet.

"I would lose 40-50 pounds but then it would just come right back," Carrie Wilson said. 

Wilson told 2 Works for You News Anchor Karen Larsen the pounds piled on with children and time - along with serious health problems. She was on blood pressure medicine, two diabetes medications and medicine for neuropathy. The pain in her feet was so severe, she would lie in bed at night and cry.

The pain and frustration are what made Carrie decide that surgery was her best option. She contacted bariatrics facilities in Oklahoma and surrounding states only to discover her insurance would not pay for the gastric sleeve procedure. Paying for it out of pocket meant coming up with around $18,000 in surgeon's fees and hospital charges. This expense was not an option for her family. During this time, she ran into a friend from church who had lost a tremendous amount of weight. She told Carrie she had undergone weight loss surgery across the border in Mexico. Yet another friend underwent the same procedure in the United States. After talking with them both at length, Carrie and her husband, Bill, started researching international facilities and found the same procedure in Mexico would cost only around $4,300. 

"You know as you tell people you're looking at going to Mexico for surgery, they think that you've lost your mind," Carrie added. “But I was so sure of my decision at that point that I didn't really care what people thought. I knew I had to do it for me. I had to do it for my family, kids, grandkids, my 81-year old mother that I take care of daily. It just had to be done." 

One of the pioneers in bariatric surgery in Mexico is Ariel Ortiz Lagardere MD, FACS with Obesity Control Center in Tijuana. With more than twenty years of experience in surgery and teaching such techniques as lap band surgery to doctors in Mexico and the United States, he took us right inside the operating room to see a gastric sleeve procedure. It is is one of the most popular procedures today. 

"We have two bariatric surgeons on the left hand side and the main surgeon performing the procedure right now," Dr. Ariel Ortiz said. During gastric sleeve surgery, the surgical team makes several tiny incisions in the patient’s abdomen before inserting instruments laparoscopically to remove 70 to 80-percent of the stomach. After five years, Dr. Ortiz says his patients report dropping 80-percent to 100-percent of the pounds they needed to lose to get to a healthy weight. 
 
The business of destination surgery is booming in Mexico and other countries. Only three percent of the patients who turn to Dr. Ortiz for help with weight loss are from his home country of Mexico. More than 95-percent travel from the United States and Canada. Most fly into San Diego where they are met by a representative of the clinic or surgeon and driven across the border. In fact, so many patients are crossing the border for weight loss surgery, clinics are proliferating in such cities as Tijuana, Ensenada and Cancun that Dr. Ortiz says the government of Mexico is cracking down. 

"Of the 1,000 centers that currently offer bariatric surgery in Mexico, there are only 88 actual certified surgeons," Dr. Ortiz said. He recommends patients research the doctor and hospital credentials thoroughly and look for third party accreditation by such organizations as Surgical Review Corporation which awards SRC Surgeon of Excellence designations; Bariatric Center of Excellence (COE) and the Joint Commission accreditations for US and International health care organizations and programs to ensure best practices and quality that help ensure patient safety.

"Worst case scenario, I end up re-doing these patients a year, 2 years, 3 years down the road because the procedure was done incorrectly," Dr. Ortiz said. "Worst case scenario - it can be catastrophic." 

Destination surgery is a trend that a number of American bariatric surgeons find concerning. The Center for Bariatrics at Bailey Medical Center in Owasso sent this statement to KJRH:  "When it comes to our health and safety, we shouldn't take chances. The bariatric surgery process is much larger than just the surgery itself; it requires a great deal of dedication and determination to achieve the best outcome and to ensure that the patient is prepared physically, emotionally and mentally for the surgery and for life post-surgery. This is why it is so important to seek out a physician and care team that will come alongside you throughout the entire process. The Center for Bariatrics at Bailey Medical Center implements this patient-centered approach which is proven to result in better outcomes." 

Carrie and Bill Wilson were impressed with their surgeon, Dr. Francisco Zavalza, and hospital's quality of care from the facility to staffing to cleanliness. In addition, teams of three nurses would care for her before and after surgery.  

“Now sometimes they might not understand what I was asking,” Carrie said. “They had their cell phones and I would type it in and convert it into Spanish.” 

Her husband, Bill Wilson, stated, "I have been in lots of hospitals in the United States and never got the kind of satisfaction we got there.”

Nearly three months after her surgery, October 30th, there is a refrigerator in Carrie's office that is as small as her appetite. She no longer drinks soda and has not had any since before surgery. She is just now re-introducing bread to her diet but finds it difficult to enjoy rice. Instead, she relies on protein drinks and small portions of salads, dairy products, vegetables and vitamins to get the nutrition she needs. With her surgically reduced stomach, it now takes her up to an hour to consume one small protein drink. She said she is learning, for the first time, what it is like to eat for the right reasons. 

"You just eat [before] because you want to eat," Carrie Wilson said. "But now I eat because I have to eat and it is a totally different feeling." 

Bill says his wife's whole attitude about life has changed. "She'll call me and say I'm buying new clothes and they're a size smaller than the last ones." He added, "So, it's been wonderful," Wilson said. "Just to see her have more energy, want to do more things, it's just wonderful."  

As for all that medicine she took before the surgery, the Wilsons are thrilled to share that she does not take it anymore. 

"No more blood pressure medication, no more diabetic medicine, none of the medication she was on. They've taken her off of all of that," Bill Wilson said. "And she has had zero problems."  

Carrie no longer feels any pain from neuropathy in her feet, her blood pressure is normal, her blood sugar stabilized and is thrilled with her weight loss. Down more than 63 pounds and 50 1/4 inches, she is now purchasing clothes that are six sizes smaller. Calling it the best experience she ever had after decades of battling weight gain, she just wishes she had made that trip across the border into Mexico years ago.

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