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by Cindy Carcamo, AARP VIVA, September 2008
The enticement of a more bountiful bosom at a bargain price was what drew Rebeca Sandoval to Guadalajara from California. Vacationing in her in-laws' villa overlooking Lake Chapala and the seemingly endless sunshine were an afterthought.
Sandoval is part of a growing number of Latinos who help make plastic surgery a booming business, despite the risks that can accompany it. In 2007, Hispanics led U.S. minority racial and ethnic groups undergoing cosmetic procedures, making up 9 percent of all procedures.
The 55-year-old Mexican American made the 1,000-mile jaunt nearly two decades ago to get her first taste of what is now known as "medical tourism." A breast augmentation and lift cost her $2,000—nearly half of what the same surgery would have cost in California. Since then, Sandoval has become hooked on the low prices and what she describes as "quality service south of the border." Eyelifts, peels, and a newer, smaller bosom are some of the procedures she's had performed in Mexico.
The most requested procedures among Latinos, according to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, are nose reshaping, breast augmentation, Botox, microdermabrasion, injectable wrinkle fillers, and chemical peels.
Cosmetic surgery has been acceptable and popular for many years in Latin America—especially in South America, says Dr. Constantino Mendieta, a plastic surgeon in Miami: "Our philosophy is that if we can try to look our best and feel our best, why not? It's not a matter of if, but when." And reality TV shows about cosmetic surgery and better financing make procedures more attractive and attainable for more people.
Today, many countries are seeing a surge of foreigners pairing trips to the plastic surgeon with vacation travel. Entire vacation-surgical packages can cost less than individual procedures in the United States. Places like Argentina and Brazil offer everything from "tropical scenic tour" to "safari and surgery" packages. But experts advise potential medical tourists to ensure the doctor abroad is certified.
That's because it could cost more to rectify a botched surgery performed overseas than to have it done right the first time back home, warns Dr. Richard J. Greco, a plastic surgeon in Savannah, Georgia. He recalls the bad scars left on a female patient who sought him out after surgery in Costa Rica. A doctor there had tucked her tummy, augmented her breasts, and lifted her eyelids—all on the cheap but ultimately at a heavy cost. "[It] took months and months to heal," he says.
Surgeons on the other side of the U.S. border, too, caution prospective patients. Sandoval's Tijuana-based plastic surgeon, Dr. Alejandro Quiroz, stresses the importance of doing your research, no matter where you go. "I think the key for medical tourism," he says, "is how to select your physician...and the facility."
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