Irina Gonzalez remembers thinking the hospital was far smaller than the ones she was used to seeing in the U.S. when she traveled to Colombia in 2009 for gastric bypass surgery. She returned again in 2010 for an upper body lift, lower body lift, arm lift, liposuction and breast augmentation in one fell swoop — procedures that would have taken years to complete in the U.S., she said.
"The exams, in some way, seemed more casual," Gonzalez, 27, recalled to Metro. "The first time I went in, I remember thinking the hospital wasn’t exactly state-of-the-art."
Gonzalez is part of a growing pool of people in the United States who opt to travel across borders to South America or Europe where plastic surgery is often thousands of dollars cheaper — with far fewer regulations. She settled on Colombia when a family friend recommended a doctor, knowing several people who had successful surgeries with him. Gonzalez, too, considers her multiple procedures with the the doctor a success. She stayed in Colombia for post-op care until her doctor cleared her to return to the United States.
"If I needed to see a doctor [after returning home], I probably would have gone to my family practitioner," Gonzalez said. "Maybe I lucked out, but I haven’t really heard any horror stories of people I know who did it, too. I don’t have any regrets."
With the holiday season approaching, U.S. surgeons predict a rise in patients leaving the country for surgery abroad during vacation time. While Gonzalez's surgeries were a success, many other patients will make their way back to the U.S. seeking help after botched surgeries, according to NYC-area cosmetic surgeon Dr. Stephen Greenberg, who told Metro Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic have become particularly popular as surgery destinations recently.
"I've seen a lot of patients for breast augmentation and tummy tucks come back with severe infections and scarring," said Greenberg, author of "A Little Nip, A Little Tuck." "I see two or three patients a month, at least, who have a problem from an outside country."
U.S. plastic surgeons are usually certified by the American Board of Plastic Surgery and members of the American Society of Plastic Surgeons — standards Greenberg warns against forfeiting for doctors in countries that don't have as strict medical regulations. And while complications are a significant concern after foreign surgeries, Greenberg said the more common issue is an outcome that doesn't satisfy the expectations of the patient.
"It’s common for someone to go and have cheap surgery and their breasts are uneven or they have a scar they don’t like," Greenberg said. "They are just unhappy."
Gonzalez insisted the majority of the vast amounts of plastic surgery patients in South America (both Americans and people who live there) have a positive experience, but did encourage potential surgery candidates to do their research and consider the language barrier.
"It's safe for the people who know what they are doing," she said. "I felt like I did because I speak Spanish and I had this family connection. I had a lot of advantages I feel the typical American might not have."
Follow Cassandra Garrison on Twitter: @CassieAtMetro