When the Olympics Happen in the Land of Nip and Tuck

Brazil is not only the home of the Rio Summer Olympic Games, but it is also a top destination for plastic surgery medical tourism. (Photo: Trunk Archive)

Rio: It’s the place to watch the best athletes kick serious butt this month — and it’s also the most popular place in the world to get a new butt of your own.

Brazil currently follows the United States as the second most-popular hot spot for cosmetic surgery and is a top booked destination for “plastic surgery medical tourism” this year — a term used to describe travel outside of a home country to undergo medical procedures.

Why schlep for surgery? People are primarily drawn to the lower price tag. The Brazilian Butt Lift, a popular procedure that liposuctions fat from one area of your body to then augment your bum, costs about $14,000 at a private clinic in the U.S., as compared with $4,000 in Brazil, according to Medigo, a Berlin-based medical tourism agency. 

Americans make up the largest percentage (20 percent) of patients traveling to Brazil for plastic surgery according to Medigo’s records, followed by the French (18 percent) and British (6 percent). The most popular procedures for these patients include butt augmentation, liposuction, tummy tuck, breast implants, and face-lift.

The land of legendary beaches is more culturally open to going under the knife than virtually any other place. Celebrities and those with means tend to nip and tuck in the U.S., but cosmetic surgery is more democratic in Brazil, where it’s essentially available to every income level of the population and where people feel freer to discuss and undergo procedures, says Renato Saltz, MD, a native of Brazil who is contributing plastic surgeon at RealSelf.com, as well as the president-elect of Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons.

However, this isn’t drive-through surgery; medical tourism agencies we consulted say that Brazilian butt lifts and other common plastic surgeries are typically booked about three months in advance for optimal availability. Any clinic purporting to be a walk-in option is a blaring red flag for a seedy place — good surgeons are in demand and are typically booked out a couple of months at least, says Medigo.

There’s no shortage of savvy surgeons though. Brazil has the highest per capita number of practicing cosmetic surgeons in the world; according to the Brazilian Society of Plastic Surgery, more than 5,200 are qualified with the appropriate credentials, says Wendy Lewis, a longtime cosmetic surgery consultant and editor-in-chief of Beauty in the Bag. “Brazil has a wealth of world-class plastic surgeons and dermatologists, and well-established clinics and hospitals, most notably in São Paulo,” she says.

And in the past few years, the Brazilian love for a plump rump has gone international. Culturally, Brazilian women have always tended toward smaller breasts and an ample bottom as the ideal. Meanwhile, in the United States, the opposite aesthetic of big breasts and a small butt have always been the desired look — but that’s changing. “Even in conservative areas like my practices in Utah, I see a lot of patients coming in — not for large breasts now — but for fat injections to their buttocks,” says Saltz, whose patients often view his Brazilian heritage as a plus in that department.

Blame the ample bottom obsession on Jennifer Lopez and Kim Kardashian, says Saltz. He credits these American celebs — and not Brazilian culture — with making big booties a desirable trait around the world. “It also has a lot to do with Internet and globalization — everybody’s now sharing their bodies through selfies, and it [big butts] has become a global look that has grown exponentially,” says Saltz. 

If cheap plastic surgery sounds too good to be true, that’s because it often can be. Medical tourism nightmares have sickened, disfigured, and even killed patients in South America, where regulations are often nonexistent, and waiver forms can bring a whole new meaning to the phrase “proceed at your own risk.” 

Evita Sarmonikas, a 29-year-old Australian woman who traveled to Mexico to get butt implants, died soon after the procedure from complications related to internal bleeding. And after four patients (including a 35-year-old Hawaiian woman) died after receiving liposuction at a Dominican Republic clinic and 19 women were sickened by infections, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a travel warning against medical tourism in the Dominican Republic. 

Even celebrities aren’t immune to the dangers of medical tourism. Usher’s ex-wife Tameka Foster (who was 38 years old at the time) suffered cardiac arrest while getting anesthetized for postbaby liposuction in Brazil and was put into a medically induced coma to survive. Doctors say the biggest surgical risk is actually the anesthesia, and there has been no shortage of malpractice cases that have resulted from botched jobs like this one. 

“Doctors in New York, Florida, Texas, and California have seen some of the worst complication cases of off-shore surgery, often taking place in Mexico, Dominican Republic, and Ecuador,” says Lewis. The reasons are various, including unskilled surgeons, major infections due to poor hygiene standards, and complications related to traveling and exertion too soon after surgery.

Patients who have had “vacation surgery” go wrong and who are seeking help are not an unusual occurrence in Norman M. Rowe’s New York City office. Most times, treating them is a guessing game — and doctors are not fans of playing that type of game. “If the patient manages to get any records, there is often very little information presented,” says Rowe, who adds that what meager details can be turned up usually have to be translated first. 

There is also the regular risk of complications following any surgery — no matter how responsibly done — that has to be considered. “As a surgeon we want to see our patients during the postoperative period,” says Rowe. Plastic surgeries entail follow-up visits to the doctor to make sure everything is healing correctly. “Speaking with a surgeon on the phone or via Skype is not the same thing as seeing the surgeon who operated on you face to face,” adds Rowe.

If saving cash is your primary motivation, Lewis says that trekking across the globe is rarely worthwhile once you factor in all the extra costs. While the most expensive markets are the New York City and Los Angeles areas, another option to consider is exploring possibilities within the U.S. “If you’re on a budget, you may find you’re better off traveling to the Midwest or Southeast, where you can identify many experienced, board-certified plastic surgeons whose fees may be more affordable,” she suggests. 

Or perhaps you can settle on watching those Olympic athletes kick butt while learning to appreciate your own caboose — whatever its size or shape may be. 

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