By Linda Kor
As more and more people consider traveling across the border to Mexico for procedures such as gastric sleeve surgery or plastic surgery, researching both the advantages and the potential risks are an important part of that consideration. But even with the best of efforts, the information found may not be accurate. When Carlsbad, N.M., resident Diana Thomas made the decision to travel to Mexico for gastric sleeve surgery, she felt she had done her homework.
Thomas’ personal insurance wouldn’t cover the surgery, so after researching doctors in Mexico she reached out to Weight Loss Agents, a Florida referral service, to schedule her surgery with Dr. Mario Almanza in Tijuana. “I really researched this. I found Dr. Almanza and could find no negative feedback; it was all good. He advertised that he’d had no deaths and below one percent infection rate,” she said.
Thomas, who was 61 at the time, traveled from her home to Mexico in June 2014 for the surgery and was sent home two days later. According to Thomas, she was sent home with a hole in her stomach. “After the surgery they take an X-ray to determine if there are any leaks, called a ‘swallow study.’ The copy of the swallow study X-ray I received showed that there were no leaks, but later I found out that it wasn’t really my X-ray,” said Thomas.
This was determined after she returned home with a temperature of 105° and a swollen abdomen. She became so ill that she was flown to El Paso, Texas, with peritonitis and her body septic. “For three weeks I was near death. My sons were called so they could say goodbye to me,” she recalled, her voice catching in her throat.
The doctors in El Paso compared the X-ray from the swallow study in Mexico to a previous X-ray she had after having gall bladder surgery and noticed there was a discrepancy. “I had two staples from the gall bladder surgery and they show up on X-ray. The X-ray from Mexico had no staples,” said Thomas.
She believes that when the swallow study was done, they saw that there was a hole in her stomach and replaced it with someone else’s X-ray and sent her home. “Almanza knew I had a leak and he sent me home to die,” she believes. What followed were multiple surgeries and three months of tube feeding.
For a year after her surgery, Thomas posted to various sites on the Internet to inform others about her experience and to warn them that Almanza was lying about his record of service. “Everything I posted that he was connected to was deleted,” said Thomas, who noted that not only were her comments deleted, she began getting harassing emails, phone calls and texts.
Thomas was then contacted by Melissa Hansen, a former patient liaison of Almanza’s, and Rick Reyes, who told Thomas he was the owner of Trinity Medical in Tijuana. Hansen told her that she was no longer working for Almanza and that the two wanted to help her, and former patients Jessie Ballandby of Show Low and Kaycha Baez of Florida file a formal complaint with the Mexico Medical Arbitration Board because of what Almanza had done to them.
Thomas said that she and the other women felt that they had to report what had happened and Thomas started an online fundraising page to be able to afford the trip. “Rick said his clinic was reaching out and trying to make more people aware of Almanza,” said Thomas. “It was never about compensation, it was about awareness and I was 100 percent for that.”
With Reyes as their interpreter, the women traveled to Mexico, filed their complaint and returned home. “We sent our medical records to Rick and he said he was going to transcribe them and hire a Mexican attorney for a class action suit against Almanza and other doctors who had harmed patients,” Thomas recalled.
Later the women were told the case with the Mexican Arbitration Board was dropped because they didn’t show up for the hearing. But according to Thomas, none of them had been informed of when the hearing was scheduled. “Later we found out Rick was no longer with Trinity Medical. He was actually just a manager and he had done nothing with our medical records, there was no attorney and the records hadn’t been transcribed. We learned that he’d quit his job and left behind all of our medical records in a bag in his office. For Rick to do that and involve me was really upsetting. I feel like I gave people false hope,” she said.
Talking with Hansen, Thomas learned that Almanza was performing up to 20 surgeries each day. “He’s one doctor with one operating room and he had one stomach stapler. Just to sterilize that machine would take at least 45 minutes,” said Thomas, who was a licensed practical nurse for approximately 17 years. It’s her belief that Almanza was operating on two people at one time and that the equipment was not being cleaned between patients.
Hansen repeated the statement in a televised news story by WPTV Channel 5 in West Palm Beach, Fla., which aired in January 2016. In the interview, Hansen explained that she had left Almanza’s employ after observing how he handled his practice. The news outlet also reported that 20 former patients of Almanza, including Thomas and Ballandby, had come forward to report life threatening complications due to surgeries he performed and that he was linked to four deaths.
In the news story, Hansen related some of the circumstances that caused her concerns, citing, “Nicked intestines, nicked spleens, a leak, a lap band put on too tight because it was a rushed procedure.” She also expressed her concerns about the sterility of the surgeries Almanza performed. “When you have 18 surgeries and 12 beds, nothing’s getting sterilized,” she said.
Almanza’s response to the claims was that Hansen had paid the former patients $500 each to speak out against him, a price that, according to Thomas, wouldn’t cover the cost of toilet paper in the hospital.
Thomas started a closed Facebook page, WLS Mexico Horror Stories, for others who experienced complications from gastric sleeve and lap band surgery in Mexico done by various doctors, and at 108 members, the group is growing. “There have been women with horrible complications,” she said. Hansen also noted that several women have messaged her with concerns beyond the surgery, saying, “I’ve had a number of women tell me that they came home and discovered that they had venereal disease. I mean, you’re unconscious, you have no idea what’s going on.”
Thomas not only has physical and emotional scars from the episode, she is also facing over $500,000 in medical bills that her insurance will not cover. “I’m being harassed every day to pay my bills. I was even being harassed daily while recovering in the hospital,” she said.
Despite all that she’s endured, she knows that others have had physical outcomes that were more devastating. “Jessie’s experience in Mexico was worse than mine. I will always be damaged, but I’m alive. I still wake up with nightmares and suffer from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder),” she said.
“No matter where you go, you should have a full picture of your doctor. I felt I was denied that. What I’m trying to do is inform people about what happened to me and help them make a more informed decision. If you read this and still decide to go, I pray a successful journey, but I hope I can make people aware of what could happen.”
Thomas also filed a complaint with the Attorney General’s Office regarding Weight Loss Agents, which still refers patients to Almanza, but when she checked back they said a complaint was never received.
To Be Continued
The third part of this series, to be published Oct. 18, will report on a notice of claim filed by Ballandby, Justin Blackburn, Carson Miller, Sheli Stoddard and Sunshine Brewer, which demands $100 million in damages from 18 defendants, citing negligence, fraud, misrepresentation, violation of the Arizona Consumer Fraud Act, and intentional infliction of emotional distress in relation to surgical referrals Mexico and the post-surgical treatment received locally.