SALT LAKE CITY — A Utah woman is sharing how a weight loss surgery in Mexico turned into a medical nightmare.
Justine Rodriguez said she underwent gastric sleeve surgery in Tijuana in 2016. She said her insurance wouldn't cover weight loss surgery.
"We decided to go there because, versus $50,000 here, it was $5,000 there," she said, of the cost difference between the U.S. and Mexico. "So that's why I went there. I was desperate."
Rodriguez's situation turned into a new kind of desperation, when she fell ill days after returning home.
Doctors found a large abscess in her abdomen, she said. After weeks in an Idaho hospital, where Rodriguez lived at the time, she was taken to the University of Utah.
Once there, she said her lungs had collapsed. Doctors inserted feeding tubes.
"They ended up finding that I had a leak which was caused, from what I understand -- the doctor that did my surgery in Mexico had sewn the bottom of my pouch too tight," Rodriguez explained.
Rodriguez said she would later find out the supposed surgeon in Mexico was actually a dentist. Despite repeated attempts to reach the doctor's office in Mexico, she indicated they wouldn't help her.
Stories like Rodriguez’s are on the rise, said doctors with the University of Utah Hospital. Her story is similar to recent warnings from the CDC about a deadly superbug related to invasive surgeries in Tijuana. A third of the patients who contracted the bacteria live in Utah.
Dr. Anna Ibele, general and bariatric surgery associate professor, said they see an increase in patients every year who come back from bariatric surgeries in Mexico with complications that can be quite severe.
“People come in unable to swallow and eat,” she said. “People come in with holes in their stomachs that are leaking into their abdomen.”
More recently, the focus has been on the superbug pseudomonas aeruginosa, which the CDC said has infected 12 people in seven states, including four in Utah. According to the CDC, all 12 people had undergone invasive surgery in Tijuana.
“This one is particularly scary, because we haven't seen a bug like this that's resistant to all the antibiotic therapies,” Dr. Ibele said.
It can require operations and procedures over long amounts of time to treat and heal the problems, Dr. Ibele said. Because insurance companies often don’t cover the botched surgery fallout, Dr. Ibele said it leaves people financially devastated.
Rodriguez knows that firsthand. She said she lost her house, two cars and wasn’t able to work because of her medical condition.
“I currently owe the U over a million dollars,” Rodriguez said.
Nearly three years later, Rodriguez said she still struggles every day. She said she recently got her feeding tube taken out, after using it for two years.
Rodriguez now has epilepsy, and suffers seizures. She’s in constant pain.
She lined up several bottles of pills on her kitchen counter, explaining that she takes a number of pills several times a day.
“That's my life,” she said. “Always taking pills, all day long.”
Rodriguez said the surgery wasn’t worth her health, her life and her family.
“The problems that I have now are not worth going to Mexico to get that surgery done,” she said.