The Dark Side Of Cosmetic Tourism

Flying abroad for cheap cosmetic procedures is on the rise in Ireland, but that doesn’t mean it comes without a cost.

Cosmetic tourism, vanity travels, Turkey trips, whatever you want to call it, traveling abroad for cosmetic procedures is on the rise. The UK has reported a 15-25% rise in people jetting off abroad each year, and Ireland is not too far behind. Cosmetic tourism is becoming the norm, but that doesn’t mean it comes without a cost.

In May of 2022, an Irish woman died after a medical procedure in Turkey, leaving two children behind. The month before that, a Louth man, 66-year-old Tony Rogers died after being administered anaesthetic at a dental clinic in Istanbul, where he was getting an emergency dental procedure. 

Cosmetic surgery, dental procedures, and cardiac surgery are the most common procedures, and the most common places to get them are Turkey, Tunisia, and the Czech Republic. But why are people choosing to get their procedures done in these places and not at home? Lured in by cheap prices and the added bonus of recovering in a luxury resort, medical procedures such as composite veneers, hair transplants, breast augmentations, and Brazilian bum lifts are advertised on social media.

Often the hook for booking in for a treatment of your choice is the lack of waiting lists and the affordable price tag that’s attached. These procedures are claimed to be carried out by a qualified professional, but as many people have discovered the hard way, that’s not always the case. 

One person vowing to raise awareness around the topic is Amanda Turner. The mother from Northern Ireland has gone viral on TikTok for sharing her ‘turkey teeth horror story’. Chatting with me, Amanda explains that her teeth were damaged during her last pregnancy. After much back-and-forth with her dentist in Ireland, she made the decision to go abroad to seek out dental care to finally resolve her issues. Flying out to a clinic in Turkey in April of 2022, Amanda went in with the intent to have dental crowns and a root canal procedure. However, what she left with was over-prepared teeth, incorrectly fitted dental bridges, and serious medical complications as a result. “It was just the worst experience of my life,” she begins.

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“When I went to the clinic to have my crowns fitted they over-prepared my teeth, which means they filed them down into very small sharp points. My teeth were daggers. The problem with the bridges then was that they were too big for my mouth and they were incorrectly fitted.” When she approached the clinic to complain about the result of her procedure she was thrown out of her hotel, with her airport transfers canceled, leaving her with no choice but to contact the Embassy to find a safe passage home. 

Sadly, this was just the start of Amanda’s problems. After returning home she soon began to experience facial swelling as a result of infections. Left with no decision but to check herself into hospital to get help, Amanda rushed to A&E. From there, she was placed on a liquid diet, losing both weight and hope. Reflecting on her nightmare now, she says “I have been in nothing but pain since the moment I sat down in the dentist chair on that Monday. I instantly regretted my decision to go and if I could turn back time, I would. If I knew that any of this could happen I would have never ever done it.”

While Amanda isn’t out of the woods yet and still has a long road to recovery ahead of her, she has sought out the help of specialists at home in Ireland to try to repair the damage done. “Fixing this will cost £60-80k. It’s taken a full team of 6 specialists and multiple sittings to repair the damage, but now I’m able to eat again.” Hoping to be a cautionary tale for others considering flying abroad for dental tourism, she adds “I’ve taken to social media to speak out about this. I want to make people aware of what can and does go wrong.”

Dr. Lisa Creaven, dentist and co-founder of Spotlight Oral Care highlighted her concern for a rise in people traveling abroad for dentistry after a video of 2022 Love Island contestant Luca Bish emerged showing him advertising a clinic in Turkey. “Dental veneers can correct worn, chipped, rotated, discoloured or fractured teeth. However, they can cause irreversible damage to the natural tooth, if carried out by an unqualified or inexperienced person. Veneers aren’t a long-term solution as they only last five years, and they might not be the best option for your teeth,” she says.

Warning of the dangers she continues: “You can have good clinics abroad but there are also a lot of clinics that may not always have the highest standards or have the skills or qualifications necessary to perform safe cosmetic dentistry. The standard of dentistry is high in Ireland so I personally think going with the cheaper job and getting loads done, it tends to fall apart after a few years.”

blue and white round ball

But dentistry isn’t the only treatment many Irish people are seeking out abroad. Brazilian bum lifts, better known as ‘BBLs’ have rapidly gained popularity in recent years, likely thanks to a certain reality TV family. The procedure is a specialised fat transfer that changes the size and shape of the bum without implants. The extremely high-risk procedure comes with many warnings for its complicated nature.

One Irish content creator, Niamh O’Connor opted in for the treatment regardless. Speaking on the ‘Hold My Drink’ Podcast, Niamh spoke about her experience with the procedure, sharing how her first surgery was ‘botched’. “From as young as I can remember I was searching bbls. A bum was something I always really wanted.” Attending a clinic in Turkey, she continued: “My BBL was botched, you could flip the implant around inside my bum. I would be on the back of my boyfriend’s motorbike and when I get off the implant would be flipped around and sticking out of my bum.”

Sharing her thoughts on the procedure with hindsight on her side she added: “They obviously put it on top of the muscle which they advise not to do and I had to get it redone. I didn’t research it, I just rushed into it, got the money together, and went for it. This was so silly, if anyone is getting surgery you need to really look into it. I have got it reversed and redone now and it’s perfect.” 

Botched surgeries performed overseas are beginning to present as a strain on the already stretched HSE here in Ireland. A recent study led by Dr Marlese Dempsey found that eight people were admitted into Dublin’s St Jame’s Hospital’s department of plastic and reconstructive surgery over a four-month period during the pandemic. These people presented with difficulties after elective surgery in foreign destinations.

woman wears green face mask

Complications included infection, implant extrusion, and wound splitting. All of the people were treated inside St James’s, with their stays ranging from just a day to almost three weeks. The study said that their research highlights how the trending cosmetic tourism business is partly responsible for ‘imposing a significant cost on healthcare resources’.

The Department of Foreign Affairs has issued advice to those considering going abroad for a procedure. “Travellers should be aware that all surgery contains an element of risk. Individuals should seek to inform themselves of both the risks and benefits of any procedures,” their website outlines. They recommend that you familiarise yourself with the surgical process and any follow-up treatments that you may need. “Irish citizens considering medical treatment abroad are advised to carry out independent research regarding the credentials of any potential service provider and to ensure that the facility is accredited with the appropriate authorities in that country.”

Echoing that, Dr. Lisa Creaven says: “It is recommended to always thoroughly research the clinic, and the consultant doing the procedure. Although it appears you are saving money for the procedure abroad, it may end up costing more in the long term. This should make you question how much you are actually saving in the end and if it’s worth the risk.” As for Amanda, she has one last message for those considering the risk, “I may never get the feeling back in my lower face. My message to the world is, that your health is your wealth. Nothing is worth nearly dying for.”

Images via UnSplash. 

This article was originally published in a 2022 issue of STELLAR magazine.