Scalpel Safaris –
In the new “Silicone Valley”
Written by: Hilton Hamann
Kim van Aswegen (30) of Bloomingdale, Illinois plans to give her husband the surprise of his life when she returns from her business trip to South Africa. “I didn’t tell him what I was doing, but I think he’ll really like the new me,” she say, turning sideways to display the silhouette of her taut new tummy and perky breasts. United States born and bred Van Aswegen is just on of hundreds of foreigners traveling to South Africa to tour the country’s game parks and wine estates – and have surgery. Commonly called “medical tourism” or “scalpel safaris” it has become a booming industry and South Africa is fast becoming the world’s new “Silicone valley”.
“After my kids were born I struggled to get back into shape,” says Van Aswegen, who runs a safari company and is a frequent visitor to Africa.
“I always wanted to get a tummy tuck and began making enquiries back home where I was told it would cost about $ 11 000. But the truth is, I was terrified. In the States there are plenty of unqualified cosmetic surgeons and I’d heard and read many horror stories.
“On my last trip to South Africa I mentioned I wanted to have the procedure done and someone suggested I consider getting it done here.”
The rest, as they say, is history. After an Internet search. A flurry of telephone calls and emailed pictures, in less than a month she jetted back to Johannesburg.
There she was met by Lorraine Melvill (43), the owner of Surgeon and Safari, and chauffeured to one of Africa’s swankiest hotels before being checked into the Rosebank Clinic.
“At first I was very nervous, but when I met Dr. Rick van der Poel I had no doubt I was doing the right thing” she says.
“I ended up having a tummy tuck, Lipo-suction, a breast lift and Botox injections for the wrinkles on my forehead.”
Van Aswegen says the trip was worth every cent. In total it cost her around $ 12 000, but that number includes all medical costs, air fares, hotel accommodation, a trip to Zambia, a couple of nights at one of the best game lodges in the country and a visit to Durban.
“This was a life-changing event,” she says. “It gave me time to think. When I get home I’m going to get fitter and become more involved in the business.”
In act, Van Aswegen was so impressed she had just struck a deal to become Surgeon and Safari’s US representative.
“The market and potential is absolutely enormous,” she says.
Melvill can justifiably be called the founder of medical tourism in South Africa.
Formerly a marketing executive with her ex-husband’s film company, she was divorced with no money and unhappy with her life.
“I was tired of making money for other people,” she says.
We’re sitting in the Polo Lounge of the Westcliff (part of the Orient Express Hotel Group) looking out across the expanse below that is the Johannesburg Zoo and the leafy northern suburbs of the city. The meeting has an episodic quality about it – it seems everyone in the complex, from the barman to the restaurant waiters want to stop shake her hand and chat.
But Melvill doesn’t shake hands; she hugs, liberally, like a benevolent uncle at Christmas time.
“I kept searching for something to do that would also make a difference to the country,” she explains.
“I felt very much like a victim, something black people sometimes find difficult to understand. I think we were all part of the victim syndrome after the 1994 elections – the exchange rate, the crime etc. South Africa became a dumping ground for everyone’s negativity.”
But then in 1999 fate played its hand. “An uncle from Connecticut came for a visit and just happened to mention he planned to have facelift. I aid: “Why don’t you have it here? We have some of the best surgeons and hospitals in the world and the exchange rate means it’ll cost a fraction of what you’ll pay in the States.”
Melvill made all the arrangements, her uncle had the procedure in Johannesburg and was thrilled with the results and the treatment.
“At that moment the light went on,” she says. “I realized the poor exchange rate could in fact work in our favor. Foreigners could afford to come to South Africa, have surgery – and it would still cost a lot less that having it done in their own country.
“In addition, they’d be away from nosy neighbors, able to recuperate in privacy and luxury.”
Melvill knew she’d have to form string alliance with doctors and an international hospitality group. She approached the Orient Express Group of Hotels, owner of the Mount Nelson in Cape Town and The Westcliff in Johannesburg.
“I guess she came to us at the right time.” says Laura Vercuil, Public Relations Officer at the Westcliff.
We were newly opened and looking for opportunities in our “building up numbers” phase.
“There were skeptics worried about the prospect of guests wandering around the hotel wrapped up in bandages but management felt we had nothing to lose.”
Doctors were chosen both for their skill and bedside manner.
“I wanted to know about their empathy and how they treated their patients,” says Melvill.
“I didn’t need a guy who is always shouting and screaming, no matter how good a surgeon he is.”
Today Melvill handles around 30 foreign patients a month and has stopped counting how many have passed through her hands. Each client spends about R 100 00 while in South Africa.
Her Business has been featured in Time Magazine, Newsweek, on the front page of the Los Angeles Times, Harpers and Queen, CNN, Reuters, BBC, Associated Press and many others. Her website (www.surgeon-and-safari.co.za) gets around 3 000 hits per day.
Other competitors have mushroomed.
For South African surgeons, who saw much of their local patient population, emigrate, it has meant the opening of an international global market and boom times. “In the last 18 months my practice has blossomed,” says Johannesburg plastics surgeon Dr. Rick van der Poel. “About 60 % of my patients are foreigners and there’ve been months where I’ve operated on an overseas patient every day.”
“There is still a lot more business we can attract,” says Frances Reynolds, Client Relations Manager at Johannesburg’s Rosebank Clinic.
“We have set up staff training programs to teach our people to give world-class service to the tourists and help them understand what it is like to be in a foreign country. Our hospitals are run like top five star hotels.”
But there are some doctors who believe medical tourism poses ethical risks. “There are obvious dangers when consulting over the Internet,” says Dr. Tom Ford, Secretary of the Association of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgeons of South Africa.
“If a patient has traveled from overseas, there may be some pressure on the surgeon to operate – even if he has some slight doubt.”
Not that Dr. Ford or the APRSSA is against scalpel tourism. “For years we’ve been doing patients from overseas: there are millions of Brits with South African connections,” Dr. Ford says.
“All we are saying is, anyone seeking plastic surgery in South Africa should make sure the choose a surgeon who is subject to peer review and an accredited member of the association.
“All our members have been trained under the British system and the truth is, we probably gain more experience here than anywhere else in the world.”
Van der Poel agrees Internet consultation is risky.
“That’s why many of us travel overseas every few months to consult there,” he says. “Where we can’t, we work from photographs sent by the patient and reserve the right not to operate. In fact, a lot are turned away because they are not suitable candidates for surgery. If there is doubt whatsoever we will not operate.”
Traditionally, most medical tourist have tended to be British woman aged between 25 – 66, but increasing number of men are heading for the southern tip of Africa fro cheap nips and tucks. Many are US businessmen, According to the America Society of Plastic Surgery, 14 % of all annual cosmetic procedures in the States are now done on men – a figure that adds up to more than a million per year!
“In the Sates there is perception you need to be young to be successful,” says Melvill. “Consequently a lot of business men are turning to plastic surgery.”
That was the main reason Bryce Jackson (55) made the trip to South Africa – A former investment banker who is now on the board of a software start-up, Jackson is supremely fit but been chubby his whole life. He wanted to look younger. He says he visited the best plastic surgeon in Beverley Hills and was quoted a price of $ 19 000 for a full body lip-suction. He saved half of that by doing it in South Africa. The price included airfare and a two-week stay at one of Cape Town’s five star hotels.
“It’s about how you feel about yourself,” he says. We all have one thing we would like to change whenever we look into the mirror. This is my chance. I am doing it for myself and no one else.