SAN DIEGO - The family of a San Diego woman who went in for weight loss surgery in Mexico and ended up in a coma is desperate for answers, and dozens more say they have been seriously injured by a doctor at the same hospital.
Angie Stidum has been in a coma since March 31. She traveled to Tijuana for weight loss surgery and has never woken up.
Stidum's family gave 10News a "note of transfer," which is the only document they have from Green & Health Hospital in Tijuana. The note says she had an allergic reaction to an antibiotic and stopped breathing.
Her family still has so many questions. They want to know who her surgeon was, how long she was without oxygen and what really happened to her.
"I can't get any information from that hospital in Mexico," said Stidum's ex-husband, Reggie Wilson.
Dozens of others have now come forward about a doctor who works at the hospital where Stidum went for surgery. Dr. Mario Almanza said he didn't operate on Stidum, but people across the country say they were seriously injured after going to him for weight loss procedures.
Team 10 Troubleshooter Cristin Severance is trying to get answers for Stidum's family and help the dozens more who say they were injured by Dr. Mario Almanza.
Manu K. wanted a gastric band operation for one reason.
"For a fresh start, a fresh healthy start," she said.
Manu booked her trip to Tijuana and her surgery with Dr. Almanza. She said she chose to go to Dr. Almanza because she'd seen him before and the cost was significantly cheaper than getting the surgery in the United States.
"The first time was so great, I didn't have a second thought of who it would be," said Manu.
Manu went to Dr. Almanza's associate five years ago for a tummy tuck. She then booked Almanza for a band last year.
A band involves an operation where surgery makes your stomach smaller so you can lose weight. This time, she said her incision never healed.
"There was still a hole, the port was literally hanging out and I'd have to push it back in and then put a bandage over it," she said.
Manu contacted Weight Loss Agents, a group based in Florida that books the surgeries for Dr. Almanza in Tijuana, and told them she was having issues.
"Dr. Almanza's team, they chucked it off as well, 'he'll remove it for $6,000 or so,'" she said.
Manu couldn't believe she'd have to pay for Dr. Almanza to fix the problem. Instead, she went to another facility in Tijuana for the repair. Doctors at that facility told Team 10 they found a hole in Manu's stomach. She talked to Team 10 days after the five hour surgery.
"Who knows how much longer I would have lasted, who knows," said Manu.
David Rush booked a gastric sleeve with Dr. Mario Almanza through Weight Loss Agents as well. His red flag went up when he touched down in San Diego.
"There's like 10 people waiting to be picked up for the same surgery, for the same doctor, this Almanza guy," he said.
Rush said he felt sick moments after surgery in Tijuana and was in and out of consciousness.
"They load me up in this old, beat up Suburban," said Rush. "I wake up in a hospital in San Diego. 'We got a call from the border patrol and you were so out of it, they called an ambulance and that's how they got you.'"
Rush said his suitcase and phone made it to Scripps Hospital in San Diego too.
"The doctors got a hold of my mom and they said 'you need to get your whole family here now, he is in bad shape. He had an infection and it's in his blood stream,'" he said.
Rush said it took a month of rehabilitation to walk again.
"What kind of doctor's office drops you off at the border and doesn't even know if someone is going to find you?" asked Rush.
A Northern California woman named Faye is upset with herself and asked us not to use her full name.
"I feel like the whole thing is my fault," she said.
She said Dr. Almanza did her weight loss surgery in Tijuana.
"It hadn't been done correctly and it had been infected since day one," she said.
Faye said the infection was pushing up under her lung and she couldn't breathe. She went to the hospital at home in the U.S.
"They laid me over a bed and took a metal straw, poked my back and drained the infection," Fay said. "He showed me a quart-sized Ziplock bag and it was filled and it looked like gravy."
"They told me I would have died. He said 'maybe six more hours and you wouldn't have made it,'" Fay said.
Francenett Littleton flew to San Diego from Dallas to have a weight loss surgery and a breast augmentation at the clinic in Tijuana.
She said the weight loss surgery was performed by Dr. Almanza and the breast augmentation was done at the same time by a plastic surgeon at the clinic.
"I look like Frankenstein in my stomach. I have too many scars -- very bad," said Littleton. "I don't have a nipple on the left side of my breast, I lost it because I have no circulation."
Littleton's husband said a plastic surgeon in Dallas said the implants may have been used and weren't sterilized properly either.
Littleton told Team 10 she was on life support and in intensive care for a month in Dallas.
The medical tourism group Patients Beyond Borders says weight loss surgery is 40 to 60 percent cheaper in Mexico than in the U.S.
The Secretary of Tourism's office in Mexico told Team 10 that medical procedures draw more than 1.25 million patients each year to Mexico, and at least 600,000 of them to Baja California.
Patients Beyond Borders said weight loss surgery in any country can be tricky.
"Bariatrics and weight loss procedures are fraught with challenges for the medical traveler: difficulties vetting facilities; numerous potential complications post-op; need for follow-up with weight-loss and wellness programs, etc.," said Patients Beyond Borders CEO Josef Woodman.
Numerous other experts and doctors based in Tijuana, Mexico said there are good surgeons in Mexico, and there are ways to truly vet them before deciding to do surgery (scroll to the bottom of this article for links and resources).
All of the patients of Dr. Almanza's that we spoke to said they knew someone who had a successful weight loss surgery in Mexico. They all found Dr. Almanza online and flew to San Diego where they were picked up by the hospital and taken to Tijuana.
WHO IS DR. MARIO ALMANZA?
According to Dr. Mario Almanza's website, Almanza is the leading gastric sleeve surgeon in the world, and has performed more gastric sleeve procedures than anyone else in the world.
The Florida based group Weight Loss Agents books surgeries and procedures for Dr. Mario Almanza at HMN hospital.
All of the patients interviewed by Team 10 said they contacted Weight Loss Agents before surgery to make to reservations and book the procedure.
Almanza is also listed as a surgeon at Green and Health hospital in Tijuana, though Weight Loss Agents told Team 10 they do not work with Green and Health.
Dr. Almanza's administrator said Almanza wasn't the doctor who performed surgery on Angie Stidum. He said Almanza was on vacation at the time of Stidum's surgery and sent Team 10 emails he says proves Almanza was in San Felipe, Mexico at the time.
Dr. Almanza's administrator told Team 10 he's looking into the allegations of patients being harmed by Almanza and will be providing us a statement.
Weight Loss Agents also directed Team 10 to the thousands of positive testimonials online.
The patients that came forward say their injuries are too serious to ignore.
"He should be stopped. I know he's not in the states but that's where he's getting his money," said Faye.
SEARCHING FOR ANSWERS
Team 10 is working to get answers for Stidum's family and help the people who all say they were seriously hurt by Almanza.
With the help of 10News Azteca anchor Claudia Llausas, Team 10 called Green & Health Hospital and was hung up on each time.
Team 10 also tried to get more information from Weight Loss Agents. They sent a statement to Team 10 regarding the number of alleged injuries through email that read:
Keep in mind that bariatric patients often present multiple co-morbidities, may not be in the best of health to begin with, and need to follow postop guidelines very carefully, despite their urges to cheat and break the rules. After their surgical intervention, they'll feel great, a day or two after surgery they might not even feel like they had surgery, so they might want to cheat the guidelines. However, they must follow postoperative guidelines very carefully, otherwise they can certainly put their health at risk. We hope you urge your readers who are considering bariatric surgery to follow the guidelines they're given, to reduce the chance that they become part of the small statistic group with a negative outcome. Such advice is without borders.
We assure you that patient health and safety is the #1 concern, and every measures is taken by providers to know their limits and to balance their workloads - creating a balanced practice providing the most positive outcomes possible.
Team 10 has reached out to agencies in the U.S. -- including the State Department, CDC and FDA -- since all of these patients are U.S. citizens.
Team 10 then brought the complaints to the Mexican Consulate of San Diego.
"It's very important that people who have surgery in Mexico, Mexican nationals or U.S. citizens are safe, but you have to tell us," said Maria de los Remedios Gomez Arnau.
She said there are Mexican agencies that will track these complaints and investigate claims.
Team 10 also spoke to the former president of the American Society for Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery, Jaime Ponce.
Ponce has been a bariatric surgeon since 1999. He said the main problem with getting surgery in Mexico is they don't normally follow up with patients, and U.S. doctors aren't necessarily going to want to follow up with a patient that goes to Mexico because of the liability.
Ponce said that if a patient insists on going to Mexico they need to do the following:
Check that the surgeon is credentialed by a credential agency in Mexico.
Check to see if the center has enough resources and experience to do the surgery.
Ask the surgeon if they can help arrange follow up in the United States
As of right now, the forms where you can fill out complaints about doctors or clinics are only done in Spanish. The state of Baja is working to make them available in English too.
10News is working to connect Angie's family with the two government agencies that can investigate doctors in Mexico. The Mexican Tourism Board also told 10News they are getting involved.
The Secretary of Tourism's office sent a statement and some information to Team 10 regarding our investigation:
The health and safety of visitors is our highest priority. We are aware of Ms. Stidum’s case and are deeply saddened by the outcome of her procedure. We strongly encourage anyone that has had an issue to file a formal complaint by taking the following steps:
Contact the Baja California Medical Arbitration Office -- Tijuana Office, Centro Comercial "Las Palmas," Tijuana, B.C. Mexico +52-664-900-7511 / Mexicali Office, Av. de los Héroes s/n local h9-31 Plaza Fiesta, Centro Cívico +52-686-557-2990
All complaints must be filed by the patient or family members with power of attorney, within the offices of CAMEBC and must bring a picture ID, as well as all supporting medical records and/or documentation.
While you can find great value in medical care in Baja California, if the price seems too low to believe, you probably should do extra homework to ensure a reputable doctor is offering the services and that there are no hidden costs; patients should also be aware of American companies offering surgical services in Mexico way below the average cost.
The Secretary of Tourism’s office is committed to working with authorities to ensure the ongoing safety of these and other medical procedures that draw more than 1.25 million patients each year to Mexico, and at least 600,000 of them to Baja California.
Cofepris is a government agency that will act on your complaints of poor care by a surgeon, clinic or hospital. If you believe your plastic surgeon has done medical malpractice, you can go here and fill out a contact form.
You can report Mexican medical malpractice of plastic surgeons, here.
The American Society for Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery has a page where you can search for a provider.
This organization provides surgeons with up to date techniques, studies, etc. Most of the better surgeons available will be listed here because they want to keep up on the latest in bariatrics.
This is a Mexican government website where you can check if your plastic surgeon is board certified in plastic surgery. You need to know the state where your potential surgeon practices. If his/her name is not on the list, they are not an actual plastic surgeon.
This link is updated each time the test for board certification is offered. You can check to see if your bariatric surgeon is board certified in bariatric surgery. Being board certified in general surgery is not the same as being board certified in bariatric surgery. If your surgeon is not on the list, they are not board certified in bariatric surgery.
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