Mid-South man shares nightmare experience of having weight loss surgery in Mexico

Local patients highlight international risk of overseas surgeries

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Raul Valenzuela says his botched surgery in Mexico nearly killed him.

“They said I am not supposed to be here,” said Valenzuela.

His nightmare began less than a week after returning home to Olive Branch after a gastric sleeve procedure at Grand View Hospital in Tijuana -- the same hospital at the center of a CDC warning in January.

But the warning came four months too late for Valenzuela and his wife.

“I wish we would have known that," he said.

The couple picked Grand View based on recommendations from friends who had successful weight loss surgeries at the hospital for thousands of dollars less than they would have paid in the states.

“Me being as overweight as I was at 278 pounds, it was something that I especially needed to do,” said Valenzuela.

He ad his wife are among more and more Mid-Southerners going abroad for medical procedures.

“In the United States, it’s all about cost,” said Josef Woodman, CEO of Patients Beyond Borders.

The Global Wellness Institute calls Patients Beyond Borders the leading consumer guide to medical tourism. Woodman estimates 1.9 million Americans will travel outside the U.S. for medical procedures this year alone.

“These high costs of care and our broken health care system are forcing millions and millions of patients to make decisions that they otherwise would not have made,” said Woodman.

Patients Beyond Borders compiled a short list of the most-traveled destinations for medical procedures and the average rang of savings per procedure. India tops that list with 65- to 90-percent savings compared to American prices. Malaysia offers 65- to 80-percent savings and Thailand 50- to 75-percent.

Closer to home, Mexico cuts the bill by 40 to 60 percent.

“My wife, she wanted to do it,” said Valenzuela. “You know, I was still reluctant because it is Mexico.”

He says his wife’s surgery was successful, but his was anything but.

“Mine was the worst-case scenario,” said Valenzuela.

Less than a week after coming home to Mississippi, Valenzuela’s stomach ruptured and he became septic. Local doctors discovered a hole in his stomach wasn’t closed properly, causing bile to leak into his abdomen.

Doctors also found Valenzuela had contracted a drug-resistant super bug called Pseudomonas, the same super bug the CDC and Canada’s Public Health Agency warned travelers about several months earlier after numerous patients became seriously ill following operations at Grand View Hospital in Tijuana.

“It’s absolutely imperative, job No. 1, for patients to do their research and not rely simply on references from friends,” said Woodman.

After Valenzuela’s experience, he couldn’t agree more.

“There are hospitals out there in Mexico that will do right by you, but do your research,” he said. “Don’t go off of what somebody says.”

Patients Beyond Borders does not encourage medical tourism for more complex surgeries that demand a lot of recovery, but the organization does endorse in-and-out procedures like light cosmetic surgery and light dentistry with the proper research.

Valenzuela spent weeks recovering from his infection in a Mid-South hospital before a local surgeon removed 14 inches of his intestines and his stomach, attaching his esophagus directly to his small intestine.

He’s definitely lost weight, just not how he wanted.

Valenzuela is now back at work, happy and -- some say -- lucky to be alive.

“If I would have known then what I know now, I would have stayed fat,” he said.

The CDC has since lifted its travel warning for Grand View Hospital.

Joint Commission International helps Americans search for quality care overseas. International hospitals accredited by the JCI are held to the same standards as accredited American hospitals.

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