Some foreigners regret their plastic surgery in KoreaA 30-year-old aspiring recording artist and actress from New Jersey teaching here sought out a plastic surgery clinic in Seoul.
The woman, who asked to be called only by her first name Sarah, was told by industry insiders that having a slimmer physique would help her find acting roles.
Sarah did research and found a clinic online which is popular among the foreign community here for having friendly, English-speaking staff.
And in mid-May, she underwent an auxiliary brachioplasty, a weight reduction procedure in her arms from a plastic surgeon who was also director of the clinic in southern Seoul.
“The doctor spoke English, and he was supposedly a reputed and experienced doctor in the field,” Sarah said.
She was not prepared for the pain and anguish that ensued in the following months.
As weeks passed after the surgery, the wound under each armpit did not heal properly, though her doctor told her everything was fine.
Usually stitches are removed after two weeks - she kept hers for a month.
One night, three weeks after the surgery, she reached out her arm in her sleep and woke up with a searing pain in her right armpit where her wound had ripped open and was bleeding and leaking puss. She returned to the clinic.
“The doctor told me, ‘Come on,’ to stop making a fuss, and he stapled the wound together without any anesthesia,” said Sarah. “I was in complete shock. It was the most painful experience in my life.”
A nurse advised her to visit an emergency room if she was in any more pain that night.
But even after the stitches were taken out, the wound was still raw and bled.
Sarah finally went to a large university hospital, where she learned she had a staph infection.
She couldn’t grip objects properly, let alone play piano, which was devastating to her as a composer for her choir. She has performed for ambassadors and President Lee Myung-bak and missed a solo at the Seoul Arts Center because of the side effects from the surgery.
She learned that she had nerve damage. “I was told by doctors I may never be able to regain 100 percent of my right hand,” she said.
Sarah was put on antibiotics for her staph infection. As for the open wound in her right armpit, she received a skin graft from Dr. Ahn Sang-tae of the department of plastic and reconstructive surgery at Seoul St. Mary’s Hospital.
“Dr. Ahn was my lifesaver,” said Sarah. “The graft surgery healed within a week with no problems.”
Sarah lifted her arms to show a Korea JoongAng Daily reporter the coin-sized scar left from the skin graft, as well as the scars from the stitching of the wound and the scar on her thigh from where skin was taken for the graft.
“See how the scars from the stitches are uneven? Another doctor said that it is the result of the stitches being left in too long for four weeks,” she said.
The stitching technique also played a role.
Sarah worked as a licensed emergency medical technician for two years in U.S. cities including Newark and also comes from a family of doctors. She later learned that the doctor who performed the surgery was not a certified plastic surgeon but a general surgeon.
“The first doctor threatened to sue for taking away a patient,” added Sarah. “And he has not offered an apology.”
“The clinic probably thought I wasn’t here to stay,” said Sarah, who has lived in Korea for the past three years and is a professor of English at a university in Gyeonggi and studying for her master’s degree in education at Seoul National University.
“They have offered to redo the surgery, but isn’t that admitting that they made a mistake?”
But many foreign patients don’t stay in the country long enough to have the side effects of their surgery treated.
As Korea pushes to boost its medical tourism industry, the number of foreign patients who seek treatment in Korea has jumped from 60,201 in 2009 to 122,297 in 2011 according to the Korea Health Industry Development Institute.
Because plastic surgery is not covered by insurance, it is difficult to get an exact number of how many people receive plastic surgery. At least 4,700 foreign patients had plastic surgery in 2010, according to KHIDI.
A 31-year-old Chinese woman surnamed Wang spent 100 million won ($92,100) on cosmetic surgery in Korea.
Three years ago, a broker introduced her to a clinic “that only accepted VIP patients” and supposedly performed surgery on presidents.
Wang, who comes from a wealthy family, received permission and money from her parents to get procedures done on her eyes and chin.
But the results were disastrous. The incision for the double-eyelid surgery was too large and the scars very noticeable. Likewise, the procedure to create an incision at the inner corner of the eyes, which makes the eyes look bigger, resulted in too much of her whites showing, giving her an unnatural and fierce expression.
The worst part was that she could not close her eyelids properly because of the surgeries.
Her jaw reduction surgery came out lopsided.
Two months after her surgery, Wang returned to Korea to find the director of the clinic and fix the original surgery. But the clinic’s name had changed and a different director had taken over. She and her family vowed to track down the surgeon. On Oct. 20, Wang returned to Korea to proceed with a malpractice suit.
Nearly half the foreigners who seek plastic surgery in Korea are Chinese patients who receive information through brokers like Wang or popular Internet portal sites, newspaper ads and TV programs.
Legitimate brokers register with KHIDI, under the Ministry of Health and Welfare, and pay commissions of 10 to 15 percent. But illegal brokers do not pay tax and are not registered with the health watchdog.
“The more discounts you receive at a hospital, the higher the chance that it has some flaws,” said a plastic surgeon who asked to remain anonymous. “These include clinics that are pretty new, or those who change their names often, which could be due to frequent medical malpractice incidents.”
Another issue to consider is the specialty of the surgeons, because lower-end clinics often have one surgeon performing a range of surgeries on the eyes, nose, chin and breasts.
The Health Ministry reaffirmed its efforts to expand its “global health care” program in order to encourage transparency and credibility last month and said it wants to increase the low rate of foreign patients who are covered by insurance.
“In cases of hospitals working with non-licensed brokers, they can have their licenses to treat foreign patients canceled,” said a ministry official. There are over 2,090 hospitals licensed to treat foreign patients.
Sarah, meanwhile, is in the middle of court proceedings against the doctor who performed the brachioplasty on her, suing him for medical malpractice and negligence.
“What I hope to do is to raise awareness of cases of malpractice for both foreigners and Koreans,” said Sarah. “But there are also great doctors out there who do care for their patients.”
By Sarah Kim, Lee Seung-nyeong [email@example.com]