‘There’s always that small little fear of what if I don’t wake up’: The decision to be a medical tourist

Updated: Oct. 14, 2020 at 11:11 AM EDT
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MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. (WMBF) - Every year, millions of Americans leave the United States in order to save money on medications and surgeries.

This practice - one surrounded by controversy - has become so frequent it’s now known as medical tourism.

Statistics on medical tourism
Statistics on medical tourism(Source: WMBF News/Patients Without Borders)

Once such medical tourist is 28-year-old Will Smink, a WMBF News employee, who recently took a trip to Mexico that he hopes will change his life for the better.

“At the start of this journey, I was at my highest weight at 416 pounds and I was not proud of that," said Smink.

Smink has struggled with weight his entire life. He said it runs in his family and both of his parents had gastric bypass surgery.

“My dad had the surgery; he was over 500 pounds when he got it in ’99 and he’s down to 199 right now. My mom had her surgery in 2003 and she lost a grand total of 200 pounds. She was around 420 pounds,” he said.

Smink started to seriously think about having bariatric surgery, specifically the gastric sleeve, in January of this year.

“I started to feel very light-headed and dizzy. I almost felt like I was going to pass out. I wasn’t looking so good and at that moment when I was in the corner, I said ‘OK, it’s time,"’ Smink said.

It was time to make a change, with a surgery that forces portion control.

“What they’ll do is make three incisions in my abdomen, chest area and basically go in and amputate part of the stomach," Smink said. “So my stomach, which is normally the size of a fist, will be the size of an egg.”

Zaher Nuwayhid, a surgeon at Conway Medical Center, said the surgery entails taking out 80 percent of the stomach, leaving the person with 20 percent.

'It’s called the sleeve because it looks like a sleeve or banana," Nuwayhid said. “So that’s what you are left and the way it works is by restriction. It means it will prevent you from eating a lot and it has some hormonal and metabolic factors.”

Smink said he tried to lose weight the traditional way and it never worked for him. Due to his size, he’s dealt with bullying and depression throughout his life. He remembers a particularly horrible moment with a bully on his school bus in the sixth grade.

“He smashed a piping hot piece of pizza in my face and the bus driver, instead of doing something about it, he said I shouldn’t be eating on the bus," Smink said.

The difficulties he faced caused Smink to contemplate suicide.

“There was stress eating, there was emotional eating. It was dark, very dark," he said.

Smink reflected back on that time and said he would tell his younger self, “I’m proud of you. I’m so proud of you that you kept fighting.”

The fighting spirit has brought him to the point where he is undergoing his first-ever surgery.

“So there’s bound to be nerves with that, but I’m more excited than anything," Smink said.

It’s a surgery he said he is counting on to save his life, but one he can’t afford in the United States.

Smink said he wanted to stay in the states for surgery at first. Out of pocket, he said he was looking at paying $20,000, whereas traveling to Tijuana will cost him roughly $5,500.

WMBF News reached out to the South Carolina Department of Insurance to find out how insurance companies determine how weight loss surgery is covered in the United States. Ray Farmer, director of the South Carolina Department of Insurance, released this statement:

“Weight loss surgery is a common exclusion in health insurance policies – even when it is medically recommended. When a consumer chooses to travel outside of the country to receive health care at a lower cost, the consumer needs to be aware that there is no mandate or law requiring insurance companies to cover complications arising from the surgery once the consumer returns home. Every policy is different, but because of the high likelihood of there being no safety net, I encourage the consumer to read their policy thoroughly and understand the health and financial risks they may be taking on before committing to any type of medical procedure that may be excluded."

“I don’t encourage people to go do those surgeries down in Mexico or anywhere outside where they live where their doctor has no access to them because bariatric surgery is a process; it is a life-long process," Nuwayhid said. "This is a life-long journey. It is something they need to be ready for because the way you are before is different than they way you are after”

Smink believes there are very minimal risks, basically less than 1 percent.”

Nuwayhid said both gastric bypass and gastric sleeve surgeries are relatively safe procedures that are done laparoscopic with small incisions. The recovery time for both, he added, is one to two days in the hospital.

“None the less, there is always a small risk of death,” Nuwayhid said. "You could always die from those surgeries. It is less than 1 percent, maybe 0.5, 0.4 percent.”

Smink noted, "there’s always that small little fear of what if I don’t wake up.”

"If God forbid anything goes wrong, I don’t think it would be easy to find somebody to take care of you,” he said. “I’ve established aftercare with my primary care physician and if you are on top of dressing your incisions and keeping on top of post-op diet, if there is a small chance of infection, the ER would probably be able to treat you, but that’s as far as it would go.”

The ultimate goal for Smink is to lose around 200 pounds..

“This surgery could actually give me the boost to finally get my life back on track," he said.

Smink documented his journey while in Mexico. WMBF News is following this next chapter of his life, recovery and weight loss after surgery. Stay tuned for the second part of this special report, Fighting For My Life. It airs at 11 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 16. Also, on Oct. 15, Audrey Biesk and Will Smink will discuss his decision in a Facebook Live at 10 a.m.

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