Health

I Crossed A Border For Major Surgery – Linda Laino

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Should you consider healthcare in another country?

Linda Laino
Less than a week after surgery in downtown Ghent, Belgium (all photos: Linda Laino)

Medical tourism is on the rise, and with good solid reason. If you live in the U.S. where the cost of healthcare is the most expensive in the world, even with insurance, a hospital stay has a good chance of wiping you out financially. More and more people are looking to other countries to take care of their needs.

There are many articles on this topic that can provide statistics and information regarding most visited countries and most popular procedures. While this information is useful, I’d like to share a personal story.

When I was 29 years old, I was in a horrific car accident that landed me in the hospital with surgery and traction for five weeks. A fractured pelvis was serious business but I was young enough that my doc didn’t recommend a hip replacement at the time. He patched me up with metal plates and screws, and tons of physical therapy. It was nearly a year before I was walking without a crutch, pain and a limp. While I was functional, I still had permanent damage in the form of limited mobility. At the time, I was told that more surgery in my distant future was likely.

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Fast-forward 25 years. I had moved to Mexico to a town that was not only hilly, but had some rough terrain in the form of huge cobblestoned streets. At the time of the move, my doc warned this would not be ideal for me. A year later, I found myself crying on the streets in pain, as arthritis had moved into my body in earnest, my cartilege was gone and the quality of my life was sinking fast.

At the time, I had no health insurance, but was receiving a final insurance settlement as a result of the car accident. If I was to remedy my situation, this was the time.

It never occurred to me to seek care in another country until a friend of a friend graciously wrote and shared her story with me of her hip resurfacing surgery in Belgium. I spent weeks in correspondence with her and others, on blogs, and Yahoo groups, researching and weighing all my options and discovered a world of alternatives for my situation.

It turned out, that her particular surgeon was the rock star of this type of surgery. His credentials were stellar. There are a few differences between a total hip replacement and hip resurfacing, I learned. A hip replacement involves cutting off the head of the femur in order to fit the prosthetic. Resurfacing allows you to keep the femur head (always better to have more bone) and have it “reshaped” in order to receive the prosthetic. Also, the stem of the prosthetic in a hip replacement is placed well into the femur, whereas only about an inch in resurfacing. This is what helps insure your gait will be level after the surgery.

Less recovery time, less chance of a post surgical limp and other advantages began to sway me. Hip replacement is such a common surgery now, that many people don’t know about or aren’t offered the resurfacing option. The reason being that this surgey had been introduced in Europe in the 1970’s, while in the U.S. it has only been approved and offered since 2006. The key to the success rests in part, on the skill of the surgeon, associated with the number of surgeries performed. My chosen doc at that time had done over 5000 while U.S. docs averaged 500.

The view from my hosptial bed.

Once I made the decision to move forward, I was even more pleasantly surprised at the personal attention I received. I sent an email to the doctor’s office and within 24 hours, I had received a reply from the doctor himself!

This was a first for me and I was impressed. He requested x-rays to evaluate if I was a candidate which were sent via email and within a week, I had been informed that although my case was fairly complicated, that yes, he could do the surgery.

My friends and family thought I had lost my mind to travel by myself to a country I’d never been to have major surgery. But having done my due diligence, the only thing left was to put my full trust in my decision and my doctor.

One of the ways in which this healthcare experience differed greatly from my others in the U.S. was how simple it all was. Every American who has been through the health care system has nightmare stories about mountains of paperwork and protracted insurance benefits. When the date was set for the surgery in Belgium, I received an email bill. I recalled the bill from my previous hospital stay (which was more like a book and presented after the surgery) that listed every drug and bandaid I used in five weeks.

My European bill had exactly two charges: one for the hospital-which included all doctor fees-and one for the five-star hotel that I would be staying in after my two nights in the hospital. That’s right. All of this doctor’s foreign clients’ luxury stay is included in the fee. I knew exactly how much everything would cost from the start, and it was not a penny more. You know what I’m talking about if you have ever tried to find out the actual cost of a procedure or surgery from a hospital or doctor in advance.

The average cost of a hip replacement in the U.S. is $45,000. Even with my airfare, and 5-star hotel stay for 2 weeks, my cost was around $11,000. This also included all meds, a wheelchair, and crutches, not to mention a nurse and physical therapist who came to my suite daily.

My five-star hotel.

After a few days of recuperation, I was walking with one crutch to beautiful downtown Ghent, Belgium to take in the sights. To be sure, medical tourism, not only affords you excellent care, but visiting a foregin country feels like a vacation thrown into the deal!

Taking in the sights in Ghent

The personalized attention I received was beyond anything I had ever experienced. (my correspondence with the hospital always began with “Linda, dearest”) Five years later, and I have been pain-free since the day I got out of the hospital. Not to mention, I have no limp and my flexibility has been completely restored( with lots of yoga help). The only “maintenance” I’ve had to do is send my doc an x-ray and blood test every year, when he informs me that my hip is “perfect!!!!” (he acutally uses that many exclamation points.)

Not only eternally grateful to the doctor that gave me back my love of walking (and dancing!)— with no pain — my experience abroad opened my eyes ever more profoundly to the broken, ridiculously expensive health-care system that is the U.S. If you have ever considered treatment in another country, I hope my experience will give you the courage to make the leap.

P.S. If anyone reading would like more specific information, please contact me, and I am happy to share! 🙂

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