Bariatrics beyond the border

(Source: Brandi Carter)
(Source: Brandi Carter)
(Source: KAIT)
(Source: KAIT)

(KAIT) - Bariatric surgery is a procedure many people are seeking as a weight loss option.

However, the price of the surgery in the United States can be $20,000 or more.

Now, people across the U.S. are looking for a cheaper option and going across the border for the surgery.

One surgeon in Mexico says 10 percent of his patients come from Northeast Arkansas.

"In one hand I've got the Red Wolves and in the other one I've got the Razorbacks," said Dr. Guillermo Alvarez.  "Sometimes I go crazy here with my patients down here,"

Dr. Alvarez has performed more than 12,000 endobariatric surgeries.

More than 1,500 of those have been patients from Northeast Arkansas.

According to Alvarez some of these patients have even been referred to them by their primary care physician.

"I normally have a good relationship with doctors in the states back home, especially in North East Arkansas," he said.

He's been doing the surgery for more than 11 years and even recruited one of his former patients to help future patients in Northeast Arkansas.

"I'm very good friends with several doctors in this town and they all highly recommend him," said Brandi Carter, patient coordinator for Dr. Alvarez.

She had endobariatric surgery in Mexico in 2015 and lost more than 150 pounds.

"He saved my life," she said.  "So, whatever I can do to help the next person, that's what I want to do."

She said she simply wants to help others on their journey to weight loss.

"I feel like God gave me a purpose and this is it," she said.

Heidi Carnathan will soon cross the border for the weight loss procedure.

She said health issues and a desire to be a better parent pushed her to look into the procedure.

"I do want to be healthier for my kids and just be here for them," Carnathan said.

Carnathan says she has kept quiet about her plans to travel out of the country for the life-changing surgery.

"I did research and I did a lot of thinking and praying about it and I have a peace about and I know it's what I want to do and I don't want people talking me out of it," she said.

Research is something Dr. Alvarez asks all his patient to do before committing to the surgery out of the country.

He's been doing the surgery for 11 years and worked on more than 12-thousand patients.

She said she was surprised when she found out one of her friends had the surgery done in Mexico in the past.

"I thought this was something I would never do," she said.

However, after doing some research and talking to that friend she now knows this is the right choice for her.

She said the research about the procedure put her mind at ease.

Dr. Alvarez spoke to Region 8 News via Skype and said he follows the same guidelines when choosing patients as doctors in the United States.

Patients must have a BMI of 35 or above as well as a co-morbidity such as diabetes, or a BMI of 41 or higher to be approved for the surgery.

According to Dr. Alvarez, a big draw to crossing the border is the price of the procedure.

"Just by crossing eight blocks reduces more than half the of the cost in the states," he said.  "Why? Mainly because of the hospital's cost."

He says hospitals in the states up-charge for supplies, making the price much higher.

The cost to have the surgery in Mexico is just under $9,000 with patients saying it's a bargain for what they're getting.

"The $8,900. That covers everything. You're not sent an extra bill later and you have support for life," said Carter.

She says thanks to Facebook and cell phones Dr. Alvarez can keep up with his large pool of patients.

"When you leave our clinic you immediately get his cell phone number," said Carter. "So, if I wanted to pick my phone up right now and call him I could."

However, doctors in the states say there is a problem with the line of communication between patients and their surgeons who are out the country.

"You have to see the patient,"' said Dr. Willie Harper, a bariatric surgeon at St. Bernards.  "You have to examine the patient, you have to interact with the patient and I think that is the only way you can truly, really take care of a patient."

He said this is his biggest concern for patients having the surgery out of the country.

"I typically see my patients at the two-week post-operative visits," he said.  "I then see my patients at 3, 6, 9, and 12 months postoperatively."

He said after the 12-month visit, he still sees his patients once a year.

The follow-ups ensure a patient is meeting their goal and not becoming deficient of key nutrients and vitamins that are needed.

He said there is another issue patients my face when they come back to the states, especially if they have any surgical complications when they come back home:

"It's very difficult to take care of a patient who you don't have any information on as to what really happened during their surgery," he said.

There is one thing Dr. Alvarez and Dr. Harper do agree on, they both said it's imperative that patients do their research before making a decision on the procedure.

Despite many U.S. doctors advocating against medical tourism, patients across the country continue to cross the border.

However, people in Northeast Arkansas are continuing to flock to Mexico for the procedure.

As Dr. Alvarez's list of patients continues to grow, it seems this may be a new trend in Region 8.

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