Video: Border crossing for plastic surgery

By Correspondent
NBC News
updated 6/8/2005 7:36:38 PM ET 2005-06-08T23:36:38

NUEVO LAREDO, Mexico — It doesn't look like it from the outside. But inside a small office in a residential area of San Antonio, Texas, there's a big business.

David Hernandez sells tighter tummies and better breasts at a discount. He serves dozens of customers each month.

"It's a hell of a deal. It's fantastic," says Hernandez.

Hernandez advertises in newspapers and along the interstate in Texas, but the plastic surgery is not done in the Lone Star State, and Hernandez is not a doctor. He's a salesman for a cosmetic surgery clinic just south of the Rio Grande in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico.

The clinic is one of many along the border offering a full range of plastic surgery procedures: face lifts, liposuction, breast augmentation and more. But how good is the work at these various clinics and how safe? It depends on whom you ask.

Mixed results
Kristy Hardeman is a Texas mom with four young children. She had liposuction and a tummy tuck two months ago. She was very pleased with the procedure and the price.

"As a matter of fact, I'm going back in six months to have my breasts done," says Hardeman. "I'm very happy."

Not everyone is as happy. Suzanne Jacobson is a mother and grandmother. She bought the same surgery at the same clinic with different results.

"Two weeks after the procedure, it had busted open," said Jacobson of her incision line. "I had a four-inch-wide and two-inch-deep gap. I was scared and I thought I was going to die," she says.

Jacobson is embarrassed by the fist-sized hole. She blames the clinic. The clinic claims Jacobson didn't take care of herself post-surgery, causing the incision to re-open. The clinic did give her three free follow-up surgeries to help her heal.

Fixing preventable complications
"The people on the border don't give a damn," says Dr. Tolbert Wilkinson, a San Antonio plastic surgeon who's been practicing for more than 30 years.

Wilkinson says dozens of patients have come to him for repair work after having surgery in Mexico.

"We're seeing not only bad surgery, but preventable complications," Wilkinson says. He says some doctors operating in border clinics do not have proper training. "They're giving all the excellent, properly-trained Mexican surgeons a bad name," Wilkinson says.

David Hernandez is proud of his clinic and says his doctors do have the proper credentials for the surgery they are performing. He admits it's not as luxurious as some in the United States, but insists it's every bit as safe.

Is the risk worth it?
"Do we have problems? Of course we have problems. There's no one that can do an average 12 surgeries a week and not have any problems," says Hernandez, who adds that his clinic goes to great lengths to ensure his customers leave happy.

Dr. Jose Luis Romero Zarate heads Mexico's Association of Plastic Surgeons. He would not comment on Hernandez's clinic directly but acknowledges there are some border surgeons with questionable credentials.

"The leaders of plastic surgery, we are worried because this is a growing problem," says Zarate, who advises potential patients to do their homework in order to keep their quest for beauty from turning ugly.

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