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'Pennies on the dollar compared to here'

Left, Amanda Keeler in Fall 2017. Right, Amanda Keeler ready for Fall 2018, six months after bariatric surgery in Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico.

By TRAVIS WEIK - tweik@thecouriertimes.com

New Castle native Amanda Keeler had to fly to another country to save her own life.

Keeler struggled with her weight for a long time. She has a family history of strokes and other health issues that come with obesity.

Last Christmas, at 29 years old, Keeler weighed 330 lbs., the heaviest she’d been in her whole life.

“I knew the tunnel I was looking down,” Keeler said.

Because diets had only proven to be short-term fixes in the past, Keeler started looking into bariatric surgery. This is a medical procedure where a doctor makes the stomach smaller, controlling how much a person can actually eat.

Keeler was floored when a hospital in Indianapolis told her the procedure would cost about $30,000 up front.

Her health insurance policy would not cover the surgery.

“Insurance would have been willing to pay for a heart attack, diabetes treatments and blood pressure meds,” Keeler said. “They just wouldn’t cover what would have prevented those things from happening.”

While researching bariatric surgery, Keeler found some online support groups of other people who were considering the surgery or who had already had it done. She noticed that people kept mentioning doctors in Mexico and the Czech Republic, rather than here in the United States.

These people were often uninsured, underinsured or their major medical insurance wouldn’t cover weight-loss procedures. So they head across the border.

The practice is called “medical tourism.” The Medical Tourism Association (MTA) has members in the Americas and Caribbean, Europe, Asia and the Pacific Islands, and Africa and the Middle East.

MTA said people might also travel to different cities or states within their own country to receive medical, dental and surgical care because the price is more affordable or there is higher quality of care in that region. This is referred to as “domestic medical tourism.”

Keeler started looking more into bariatric surgeons in other countries. Some medical centers advertised $5,000 for the same procedure that the Indianapolis office was quoting at $30,000.

Keeler was sure there had to be a catch. The more she researched, however, the more comfortable she became with the idea of heading out of the country for surgery.

Henry County resident Steve Hacker, Keeler’s father, wasn’t so comfortable with the thought.

“Obviously, when I first heard that news, I was alarmed,” Hacker said.

Hacker knew that his daughter wouldn’t make a decision like this without knowing what she was doing, though.

Keeler eventually found Dr. Ariel Ortiz of the Obesity Control Center in Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico, offering bariatric surgery for around $7,000, which included travel expenses and recovery in the Tijuana Marriott next door.

The Obesity Control Center has multiple accreditations. Dr. Ortiz has also worked as a consultant training surgeons in the United States and Canada on bariatric surgery.

Best of all, the surgery was “pennies on the dollar compared to here,” Keeler said.

“I’m very, very proud of Amanda,” Hacker said. “She really did her research ... I’m more proud of her than anything for doing her homework.”

Keeler called Dr. Ortiz’s office in January and set up her surgery for March. 

The Obesity Control Center put Keeler on a strict diet leading up to her surgery. They needed her to lose 40 pounds in two months to make sure the surgery went safely and to make sure that she was committed to losing the weight.

Once the weight started coming off, Keeler had to get used to explaining to her friends and family that she wasn’t doing this on a whim.

Keeler and her husband hopped on a plane in March and headed to Mexico.

They were met with exactly the level of professionalism, care and surgical sterility that they had been promised.

“These are real facilities, real accredited places,” Keeler said. “It was a very pristine-looking medical center. It was a legitimate facility.”

She recovered in the Tijuana Marriott, where the staff were specifically trained to watch for any post-surgery complications. If anything had been wrong, the hospital was right next door.

There were no complications.

Since undergoing the procedure, Keeler has lost an additional 62 lbs.

“She’s doing fantastic,” Hacker said.

“I definitely would do it all again in a heartbeat,” Keeler said.

The medical team from Dr. Ortiz’s office still checks in on Keeler, too. Even though the surgery is over, she can still call them with questions or concerns.

“I just can’t thank them enough,” she said.

Keeler continues to chronicle her journey and share motivation with other people on Instagram under @lightenupwithAmanda. She completed her first 5K run over the weekend.