An Oklahoma woman nearly dies in a botched weight loss surgery in Mexico. Now she and her doctor warn others who are looking abroad to save time and money on these risky procedures.
"They sold it to me as if it was a vacation and it was," said Brandi Jefferson, who received a failed gastric sleeve surgery.
Jefferson remembers taking in the sights in Tijuana, Mexico earlier this year, a dream getaway she hoped would change her life.
"I'm just a normal woman that wants to be healthy," she said.
The 35-year-old mother of three struggled with her weight since she was 12 years old. After her mother died last year, she wanted to get healthy for her kids.
"I had really tried every diet, didn't work," Jefferson said. "I didn't want to wait; I just wanted to do it."
After researching her options, she decided to have a gastric sleeve surgery and found a clinic in Mexico that would do it fast and cheap.
"They had me there the first day, the second day you have surgery, the third day you're in the hospital and the next day you go home," she said.
On the plane ride home to Ardmore, she knew something wasn't right.
"I slept a lot of it," she remembers. "I mean every bump or anything, I was hurting."
After three days of fever and pain, she went to the emergency room.
"I was terrified and I couldn't believe it happened to me," she said. "No one ever believe it happens to them, but it happened to me."
Doctors found a softball sized abscess in her back where the gastric sleeve was leaking.
"My sleeve had gotten full, it burst the staple line," she said. "I thought I was going to die.
She nearly did - until she met Dr. Hamilton Le at INTEGRIS Weight Loss Center.
"In just the last eight weeks or so, I've had to repair four people who had life-threatening complications, in some cases, critically ill and almost dead from sepsis, from gastric sleeve surgery by doctors in Mexico," said Dr. Hamilton Le.
Dr. Le performed an emergency repair surgery on Brandi 10 days after her failed one in Mexico, and warns others looking into what he calls medical tourism.
"The surgery is just the tip of the iceberg. When you have the surgery in the U.S., there are extensive pre- and post-surgery requirements and after-care, like getting an EKG to check heart health, meeting with a psychologist to make sure patients are emotionally ready for the surgery, and having a nutritionist teach them how to re-learn to eat." Without this coaching, patients are much less likely to maintain any weight loss, he says.
After two months of recovery, Brandi is losing her weight and will never forget what she could have lost.
I feel so much better," she said. "I didn't understand how big of a business this was. This is a huge business. There's so many women doing this, you don't even realize it until you're in the middle of it. I am extremely thankful to Dr. Lee, he saved my life."
Clinics in Tijuana clinics charge as low as $4,000 for the whole surgery plus anesthesia compared to $10,000 or more in the U.S.