Feature Archive

Cosmetic Surgery in Paradise

Surgery Vacation

WebMD Feature

Here's a fabulous vacation plan: Hop a flight to Cozumel for a weeklong resort stay. Enjoy poolside lounging, fine dining, and barefoot walks in the surf, all while you recover from plastic surgery.

That's right. There are many cosmetic surgery clinics in Mexico, the Caribbean, and South America where you can get away from it all and have your nose, breasts, face, or tummy done, too. Your friends won't bug you because they're hundreds of miles away, and if you're going to be in recovery for a while, why not convalesce in paradise?

"The allure of it is that it makes perfect sense," says Malcolm Paul, MD, president of the American Society for Aesthetic and Plastic Surgery. Nevertheless, he thinks it's a bad idea. "It's a whole lot better to stay home," he says.

Paul argues that cosmetic surgery is nothing like a spa treatment. It's real surgery that involves real risks. He is concerned that people who leave the U.S. won't be guaranteed the same medical standards they would have at home. If you were to have life-threatening complications during the operation, the doctor might not be equipped to deal with them.

What's more, you can't be certain that the results will satisfy you. If you were to need follow-up work done, your doctor wouldn't be just down the street. You would have to pay for another plane ticket and another hotel stay.

Besides the risks, Paul says, a cosmetic surgery vacation might not be as much fun as you'd expect. You're supposed to avoid the sun after surgery, and even if you wanted to, no doctor would tell you it's OK to splash in the ocean with bandages and stitches.

Bargains Galore

Low costs draw people to foreign clinics. Whereas a surgeon in Manhattan may charge $5,000 for a nose job, one in Mexico may charge $1,800. That's not the only procedure for which fees differ greatly. A facelift may set you back $7,500 in New York. Down in Mexico, you can have it done for as little as $4,000.

Paul says you shouldn't let a bargain sway you. "It's not a good idea to try to save money on your plastic surgeon or your parachute," he says.

Nevertheless, paying top dollar doesn't necessarily mean you will get top quality. Like any business, surgical clinics must factor their overhead into their rates. Office space in Mexico tends to be quite a bit cheaper than a suite on Fifth Avenue.

Bruce Lattyak, MD, cosmetic surgeon at the Bermuda Wellness Centre, says a doctor's training and experience should be a higher priority than cost, no matter where the clinic is. "I think the most important thing is to develop a rapport with your surgeon," he says. Your conversations with the surgeon should leave no doubt that you're in capable hands.

It's also good to know that the surgeon is certified by the American Board of Plastic Surgery. You can find American board-certified doctors working abroad. "I have friends who have done that for years," Paul says.

Outside the U.S., many surgeons are not certified by the American board. Surgeons trained in Europe, for example, may not have American board certification, but that doesn't make them hacks. Find out what kind of training a foreign doctor has. He or she should have a degree in surgery from a known and respected university as well as past experience, like a surgical residency at a good hospital. Also keep in mind that a surgeon can be trained in surgery of the head and neck, but not be qualified to operate on other parts of the body. You probably don't want that surgeon to do your breast implants.

That may be another argument for having surgery in the U.S., where you know what's what and who's who. It may be hard to figure out which foreign hospitals and universities are reputable. Is St. Isabel's Hospital in Bulawayo a state-of-the-art medical center, or a filthy three-bed clinic? Is La Universidad del Sol a renowned medical school, or a classroom above a hair salon?

Road to Recovery

The Wellness Centre, where Lattyak works, is on the island of Bermuda. It's an outpatient clinic, so after you have your surgery you recover in one of several nearby guest houses or hotels.

Lattyak says he understands why doctors like Paul discourage cosmetic surgery vacations, but he argues that recovering in a spa-like atmosphere may be "a terrific boost to the healing process." At home you're burdened with chores and responsibilities. "Being able to leave some of that behind is a real boost," he says.

"Most of our patients have a realistic understanding of their postsurgical limitations and restrictions," Susan Canale, nurse at the Cosmetic Surgery Center of San Carlos, Mexico, tells WebMD. "What our center does offer is an affordable service in a beautiful, private, and peaceful seaside town."

If you do choose to travel for surgery, plan for a long enough stay. "Whoever does the surgery should outline the expected recovery time," Lattyak says. "You can't just do this on a whim."

Martin F. Downs is a health writer in New York City. He was formerly an editor at CBS HealthWatch. He has also written for Health.com, Salon.com, and POZ magazine and is the editor of the Alicubi Journal.

Originally published April 18, 2002

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