Faster, cheaper surgery across the border could be deadly

Part I

By Linda Kor

With the high cost of medical care, the option of traveling across the border to Mexico can be tempting. There, the cost for procedures such as gastric bypass band or sleeve surgery can be as little as a third of the cost of similar surgeries in the states.

In order to advertise their services in the states, doctors in Mexico encourage former patients to promote what is called “medical tourism” amongst friends, family and acquaintances for a referral fee, discounts on future surgeries or expense paid trips to Mexico.

While many people have had successful experiences in Mexico, others have stories of devastation that has permanently damaged their health and, in some cases, led to death. One whose life has been dramatically affected is Jessie Ballandby of Show Low, who traveled to Tijuana for gastric sleeve surgery in March 2014 at the recommendation of her longtime friend and former relation Sandra Brimhall of Snowflake.

Information provided to The Tribune-News shows that Brimhall has been providing referral services for procedures in Tijuana, including gastric bypass surgery and plastic surgery, such as tummy tucks and breast augmentation, to people throughout Navajo County since 2011.

According to Ballandby, it was in 2014 that Brimhall reached out to her offering hope to the single mother of two young boys. At 32, Ballandby had always led an active lifestyle, playing softball, hunting and fishing, but after the birth of her second child she was unable to lose the weight gained during pregnancy and it kept her from doing the activities she enjoyed.

Ballandby said that Brimhall, who was employed as the principal of Whipple Ranch Elementary School at the time, spoke to her when she dropped her son off for school one day, telling her she should travel to Mexico for gastric sleeve surgery as Brimhall was taking a group of ladies who were having similar surgeries there the following week.

“I had so much faith in Sandy. She really glorified it to me and so I felt confident to go ahead with it,” said Ballandby.

She met five other women at Brimhall’s home for the trip, and within hours they were checking into their hotel rooms in Tijuana. With no pre-screening or testing aside from a blood test, surgeon Dr. Mario Almanza performed the surgeries, with Ballandby the last to be done.

“Right away it seemed like the others had done better than I had and I really didn’t understand why. I was in so much pain. The nurse gave me pain killers, but nothing helped,” recalled Ballandby.

What she had been told would be a simple procedure had suddenly spiraled into a medical crisis. While still at the surgical center, Ballandby began to bleed profusely from her incision. “I was saturated. I called the nurse, but I was falling in and out of consciousness. All I could remember was the nurse telling me I had beautiful eyes and not to worry because this was all normal,” she recalled.

The nurse gave her gas relief medication and the next morning she was sent to her hotel room. Still feeling ill and weak, Ballandby put on a hooded sweatshirt, pulled the hood over her face and went to bed. Just hours later she was awakened by her roommate to go have what Ballandby called a “leak test,” an X-ray taken at a clinic to determine if everything went fine following surgery. Once awake, she found that she was again covered in blood.

“I don’t know how I did it, but I managed to get up and take a shower so that a driver could take me to get the test. The waiting room was filled with about a 150 people all speaking Spanish and there was nowhere to sit, so I just lay down in a corner. When the driver looked over at me and saw the blood seeping through my clothes, he helped me up and told me he was taking me to the hospital. He showed more concern for me than anyone else had,” said Ballandby.

At the surgical center, Ballandby said Dr. Almanza removed a blood clot and told her she would be fine. According to Ballandby, it was then that she saw Brimhall for the first time since her surgery. “Dr. Almanza removed the clot and then Sandy came into the room. All she said to me was, ‘Your mom’s going to kill me,’ and then she started talking to Dr. Almanza about business right there next to me.”

According to Ballandby, Brimhall had told her that she was not receiving referral fees to bring people to Mexico, but the conversation she had with Almanza at the surgical center that day indicated otherwise.

After the blood clot was removed, Ballandby was sent back to her hotel room, but the bleeding hadn’t stopped. When the other women who had made the trip with Ballandby saw her condition, they became so concerned that they called Mormon missionaries to the room to give her a blessing. “They called Sandy, but she never came to the room,” said Ballandby.

Once again, Ballandby was sent to the surgical center and another blood clot was removed. She was again told she’d be fine.

The next morning the women rose early and returned to the U.S., but Ballandby was still weak and feeling ill. For two weeks she was unable to eat and was barely able to drink fluids. After returning to work, she collapsed and was taken to Summit Healthcare Regional Medical Center in Show Low.

It was there that she learned she was severely dehydrated and a CT scan revealed her spleen had been cut. They kept her at the hospital for weeks and then sent her home, but Ballandby knew something was terribly wrong. “I was lying in bed with my baby and I knew I was dying. I was gasping for air and praying to God to help me, to let me be with my kids and then at 4 a.m., it came to me that I had to get off that mountain,” she said.

Ballandby called her father and told him that she had to go to the Valley right away. He arranged transportation and when she arrived at a Scottsdale hospital later that morning, they admitted her and immediately brought her in for surgery. “I was bleeding internally, and had two and a half liters of blood pooling inside of me. My stomach was open and getting infected, and my kidney and liver were shutting down,” she recalled.

Ballandby remained in the hospital for two months. After multiple surgeries she now has what is called a “bear claw” holding her stomach together and she continues to make regular visits to a specialist.

“This is what it’s going to be for the rest of my life. Every day I fight for my life, every day,” she said.

Attempts by The Tribune-News to contact Brimhall were unsuccessful and no response was provided by Brimhall by press time.

Ballandby’s experience with Dr. Almanza, who continues to perform surgery in Mexico, and Brimhall didn’t end there. She joined efforts with another woman, Diana Thomas of Carlsbad N.M., who was also operated on by Almanza, to report his actions to Mexican authorities.

To Be Continued

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In the Oct. 11 edition of The Tribune-News, Diana Thomas tells of her experience, and what she and Ballandby have learned about Dr. Almanza’s practice and their experience with the Mexico Arbitration Board. In addition, information uncovered by WPTV Channel 5 in West Palm Beach on the deaths of four people allegedly at the hands of Almanza, as well as dozens of people who reported critical injuries after he performed surgery on them, will be reported.

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.

Those listed as defendants in the claim are Brimhall, the Show Low School District and its former administration, including the estate of the late Kevin Brackney and Michael Seaman, Fill Centers USA, LLC, Iris Stratton, S. Ross Fox, Ariel Ortiz, Lee Grossbard, Kathy Fox, Gwendolyn Hall, Tammy Hall-Kubitza, Kristie Rivington-Blackwell, TWIGS, LLC, Mariposa Surgical Solutions, LLC, Lexington Life Academy, Dr. Mauricio Gutierrez and Summit Regional Medical Center.