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Weight loss surgery in Tijuana ended in complications, tragedy for two Mississippi women

FILE PHOTO - Medical assistants prepare surgical instruments for a surgery.
FILE PHOTO - Medical assistants prepare surgical instruments for a surgery.(AP Photo/Francois Mori, file)
Updated: May. 27, 2021 at 3:15 PM EDT
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BILOXI, Miss. (WLOX) - Cheaper doesn’t always mean better, especially when it comes to having surgery. A trip to Tijuana to save money on bariatric surgery ended with one Gulf Coast woman having complications and another losing her life.

In 2019, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a warning after 11 Americans who had weight-loss surgeries in Tijuana returned home with antibiotic-resistant infections; however, many people still decide to indulge in “medical tourism” due to it being a cheaper alternative for surgeries.

Unfortunately, friends and family mourned the loss of a Biloxi woman who died during surgery. Loved ones say 34-year-old Markita ‘Kiki’ McIntyre died while undergoing sleeve gastrectomy surgery. Sleeve gastrectomy is a bariatric surgery in which 80% of the stomach is removed reducing the volume of food a person can eat.

Friends and family are mourning the loss of a beloved Biloxi makeup artist and mother who died...
Friends and family are mourning the loss of a beloved Biloxi makeup artist and mother who died Thursday after loved ones say she was unresponsive while having surgery in Tijuana.(Queeni Left Mua Facebook)

Many are still confused about what happened that day, including Francesca Moultrie, one of her best friends. According to Moultrie, they both were supposed to have the sleeve gastrectomy surgery. Moultrie ended up changing her mind, while Markita continued her process.

“I talked to my friend throughout the entire process,” said Moultrie. “We talked every day, and she was asking questions every day in the group, so she was very knowledgeable.”

She said she spoke to her hours before the surgery.

“I asked her how she was doing and she said she was ok,” said Moultrie. “I had posted something on Facebook and she laughed at it. I was going to talk to her after surgery around 2 or 3 p.m.”

However, she said she never received a call. Then, around 5 p.m., she received a call from her husband that Markita was unresponsive and had passed away.

“It was very devastating,” said Moultrie. “I just want to be a voice for these women about surgeries. Y’all are getting these surgeries and they are not healthy, and they’re not good for your body. Don’t do it. It was a wake-up call.”

With over 20 years of experience, Dr. Donald Balder, certified general surgeon and founder of the Mississippi Institute of Weight Loss Surgery in Gulfport said he’s never heard of a bariatric patient dying in the U.S on the operating table.

“That’s extremely rare,” said Balder. “One of the problems with transiting surgery is obviously they might not have an appropriate work-up. So, there’s risks to it. But if you go to a seasoned surgeon, who’s done hundreds and thousands of cases, the risk goes down.”

Balder said the sleeve surgery is the most common bariatric surgery received in Mexico. On average, he said the price of the surgery out of pocket is between $16,000-$18,000. The price in other countries is relatively lower, ranging from $4,000-$5,000. That price difference is among the most common reasons why many seek surgeries in other countries.

Recently, Dr. Balder said he had to fix complications a 33-year-old Pascagoula resident received after she underwent sleeve gastrectomy surgery.

“She came back with incapacitated heartburn,” said Balder. “The number one complaint after weight loss surgery is heartburn, or acid reflux, because the sleeve causes higher pressure in the stomach than people are used to, she had a big hiatal hernia.”

Balder said the facility didn’t fix her hiatal hernia, which occurs when the upper part of your stomach pushes up through your diaphragm and into your chest cavity. He also said they left too much stomach.

“The sleeve wasn’t really done the way most people do it in America, it was kind of a bigger sleeve, so I had to redo that and fix the hiatal hernia,” said Balder. “We did that Monday, and I talked to her this morning and she says she feels amazing. Heartburn is gone.”

Dr. Balder’s patient, Charletta, agreed she felt better and wanted to share her story. Like most people, she said she had surgery in another country because it was cheaper.

“Technically, the sleeve is supposed to be less evasive, and less expensive than the bypass,” said Charletta. ‘You still have good results with it being that you can lose up to 70% of your body weight, so for me it was more cost-effective. And for me, I didn’t want any of my organs rerouted because with the gastric bypass, you have to have your intestines rerouted.”

But within three weeks after having the surgery, she felt ill.

“I was vomiting and more nauseous than usual,” said Charletta. “You have some nausea and vomiting, but not the extent that I was experiencing. They do tell you to sip and eat slowly, and I was doing all of those and I was still experiencing this.”

She was informed by Balder that the surgeon in Mexico sewed her hernia to her stomach, which made it harder for her to keep food down and made her acid reflux excessive. Even though she experienced this, she said she still had a good experience and said the facility was informative and attentive.

“I didn’t know I was going to have complications until I came back home,” said Charletta. “And it was when I spoke with my surgery sisters that they were progressing in their diets and I wasn’t able to consume anything. But luckily Dr. Balder agreed to help me, and I’m starting to feel better. I still say I had a great experience, and I will always say I did. But if I could do it all over again, I would’ve went to Dr. Balder.”

And she’s happy to get her life back on track.

“Before the surgery my highest was 381,” said Charletta. “And I tried Keto, Weight Watchers and I was still putting on a lot of weight. Now this morning, I’m 290 lbs., so I’m starting to feel young for once, and can keep up with my children, and I’m getting my life back.”

“One thing that hits home for me the most is that I love what I do, and I love watching people transcend into new lives and new health. So I follow up with my patients myself as we go along, very consistently, every 6-8 weeks for the first year,” said Balder. “And if you go to Mexico, they give very little to any follow-up. The operation doesn’t work just by itself, you have to change your diet, and lifestyle, and there’s a lot of things that are mislabeled as healthy. So a lot of people may be trying to lose weight, but not appropriately.”

Along with different post-surgery protocols, he said most doctors in Mexico typically won’t give patients proper information needed after the procedure.

He said most, if not all his patients who came from Mexico weren’t put on the proper bariatric vitamins that they should be counseled about, which results in B-12 deficiency, Vitamin D deficiency, and malnutrition.

“I would never let my family or friends go there,” said Balder. “I will never. We have the lowest price of weight loss surgery in the state. I keep my prices as low as possible, so people can finance it here.”

Risks associated with sleeve gastrectomy can include:

  • Excessive bleeding.
  • Infection.
  • Adverse reactions to anesthesia.
  • Blood clots.
  • Lung or breathing problems.
  • Leaks from the cut edge of the stomach.

Though this surgery has risks, it also has many benefits, according to Balder.

“It’s not an aesthetic surgery, it does have aesthetic side effects, I mean people who lose 80-100 pounds look younger, and more attractive, so to speak,” said Balder. It’s to promote health, it’s to get rid of diabetes, it’s to take the weight off their joints so they don’t have to have joint repairs, take weight off their back so they can go back to work, sleep apnea, high blood pressure.”

And he advises everyone to do their research before making any fast decisions.

“Highly stop and rethink your options,” said Balder. “We go and buy a car and we finance, and we don’t really rethink twice about financing it, right? But you’re going to go to another country, that might talk a different language, and you’re going to trust someone to do a surgery for a couple thousand dollars when you can finance your body for $10,000 or 12,0000, so I think they need to give it a second thought.”

If you’d like to learn more about the risks and procedures involved in bariatric surgery, click here.

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