CHOP OF THE BUSHVELD
The Story of a scalpel safari
The Changing Face of cosmetic surgery has made it the dark star of TV show Nip/Tuck and a money-spinner in South Africa. Hundreds of British and Africa tourist are now booking “Scalpel Safaris” every year, giving doctors and tour operators a welcome cash injection.
The fat-spraying liposuction hoses, torturous botox needles, canvassing patients between the sheets and the blood-spattered rip and tug of butt implants packed into January’s Nip / Tuck pilot, achieved screenwriter Ryan Murphy’s goal of showing a brutal side of cosmetic surgery.
We spend our lives trying to avoid the operating table for all the squeamish fears Murphy brings to life. Yet if it bears the promise of youth and beauty, we happily lie ourselves down - and do so on another continent if necessary.
With a limp rand and potent sun, South Africa’s medical tourism market has exploded. ‘I really am amazed at how brave people are, jumping on a plane to go somewhere they’ve never been before on their own.’ Says Victoria Wagner of Evolution Cosmetic.
Many women still leave hubby at home (and convinced she’s visiting an old school friend). But single executives and gay men are frequent visitors too, as are couples and friends who travel as partners in surgery. Lorraine Melvill CEO of Surgeon and Safari also cited a recent ‘family holiday’ group with mum, dad, kids and granny.
While many companies face falling off the bandwagon because of the strengthening rand, the established continue to clock up to 20 patients a month. The procedures requested depend on age. Face-lifts, eyelid surgery, eyebrow and neck lifts are most common in the over-45 group. Nose jobs, liposuction and breast enlargements are more common in younger patients. Considering a breast enlargement alone would cost about (pound symbol) 4500 and the whole SA package ranges from R20 000 to R30 000, it’s a bargain. Wagner says, ’50 to 60 percent of our clients are middle-aged women, not so much A / B income but more B / C income who could never afford to do it in the UK.’ Although they do still get the odd UK pop star and a stream of page-three glamour models,
Tracy Anthony a 40-year-old mum of two from Swindon, England, came to South Africa with Surgeon and Safari to have a breast enlargement and a tummy tuck. She was filmed throughout for a documentary that was shown before the Nip / Tuck premier on Sky. She told us her story.
‘I lost 60kg through Atkins and other diets. I was left with no chest whatsoever and had a lot of loose skin around my tummy. Nothing I did and no amount of exercise was going to get rid of it and I realised that surgery was my only option. It wasn’t a vanity thing like the celebrities do, it was an act of desperation.
This is an industry where celebrity rules. Not only are features in demand - Nicole Kidman’s nose, Johnny Depp’s jawline and Halle Berry’s cheeks are among the most popular - but also the procedures stars have had. As much as clients need to research a reliable surgeon, those operating need to deem a client fit to go under the knife, and not just in a physical sense. First questionnaires and then interviews establish the client’s emotional state, their motivation for surgery and most importantly whether they have a realistic expectation of the result.
‘I turn away 30 percent of my business because they are not suitable,’ says Melvill, ‘If a client comes with a picture of Dolly Parton’s breasts, you already know that they’re not a candidate for surgery. They’re not considering that their body is uniquely their own and that any change you make is going to work with that. We’re not into reconstructive surgery.’
If you’re accepted, you can send your ‘problem area’ digital pics and communication begins. Personal attention and relationship-building binds this industry. Perin Lewis, Wagner’s mother, runs the London office of Evolution Cosmetic and spends hours on the phone talking through the process with clients. Their advantage is that they have lived it themselves - Lewis has had a face-lift and Wagner a breast augmentation. Melvill also stresses the need for clients to know enough to make an informed decision, she has communicated with some clients for two years before they came over.
Another aspect is putting potential clients in contact with past clients (with their consent). This way one can get a first-hand account of the experience and the other gets to share it – a great release if they haven’t told anyone else in their life. And no one can see who’s on the other end.
To tell… or not to tell is the ongoing cosmetic surgery dilemma, but it was an ex-pat who told Anthony about surgery in SA. This is often the case agrees cosmetic surgeon Dr. Lionel Jedeikin, who has had referrals from women who have had work done, emigrated, and then spread the word on being complimented.
I actually met someone who lived in the same village as me who used to live in South Africa and she was going back to have a breast reduction. She had so much faith in South African surgeons and said she wouldn’t even consider cosmetic surgery in the UK. I decided it was time for me to go down the same road.
I spent a long time researching it and weighing up the risks involved. Even going under anaesthetic is a risk, I mean if you go in for a tummy tuck, we are talking major surgery. I think one has to be very, very careful and extremely vigilant. Check out the history of the company and the surgeon and look at it from all angles – you could be operated on by anyone. I spent hours and hours putting together a file of all the surgeons because I had to satisfy all my own questions first. I was on the phone a lot and on the web and I spent at least six months gathering information daily – I used to give myself a headache going through it all, my file was packed solid. It also helped knowing someone who had had surgery.
With Poland, Croatia, Brazil and others also pinning their flags on the cosmetic surgery map, the UK medical fraternity has criticised overseas surgery as high risk with no comeback if there are complications once you’ve returned home. Jedeikin counters this, ‘Apart from the fact that I am in the UK every three months to consult, I have a trusted network of colleagues who have emigrated there. I can refer clients to them should a problem arise and they will keep the cost down.’
While we’re not alone in offering cost advantage, we do have a rep for high-quality medical practice and SA doctors have rebutted with this point. Jedeikin tells of a patient who still went ahead with a booking even though the rand had strengthened, stating she didn’t care because the quality of service was superior. Melvill’s business also hinges on quality, as she states, ‘I started up at the end of 1999, when the rand was six to one to the dollar, it was never about cheapness but about offering the best quality for women who want privacy and to get away.’
I was a bit anxious flying half way around the world to have surgery but I was so well looked after. Now I would never contemplate surgery in the UK either because I wouldn’t have got the care I did in South Africa. There’s no way you could buy that level of service and it all helps your recovery. No UK surgeon would give you their personal mobile number off duty. Dr Rick was gentle, professional and caring.
Melvill also raises the point that clients have a more in-depth qualitative consultation than any 15-minute walk-in. With an hour’s worth of telephone and email time, followed by a face-to-face consultation in London and the opportunity to ask any question at any time via email. Then there’s also high-quality after-care so that you are ‘nurtured’ through the experience – rather than leaving the clinic on your own and heading for the tube with gauze flapping in the wind.
I spent 10 days in Jo’burg. I was released from clinic on Friday and I was out shopping on Saturday already! I wasn’t out for too long, mind, but that was more tiredness than pain. It was so weird, I couldn’t get my head around the fact that I could wear all these clothes now - It was a very emotional time – I went out and bought so much new underwear! With regards to the pain, it was a walk in the park. Everyone was amazed at how fast I healed and they told me it was because I had such a positive attitude.
I did have one low day but I was expecting it anyway. They go through everything with you, spelling out the risks and explaining what you’ll experience, both emotional and surgical, day by day. They were totally honest about everything. I never for a moment doubted that I had done the right thing.
Wagner explains, ‘The client will usually get very nervous just before surgery. Then if any time is going to be an emotional roller-coaster it will be the two to three days after.’ It is accepted that the ‘comedown’ from the anaesthetic can bring on teariness - usually triggered by the sight of post-surgery bruising and swelling. Within a few days the healing is obvious but clients are often advised to stay on for about a week for doctors to keep tabs on their recovery.
Nurses, personal assistants, chaperones or ‘surgery buddies’ are included, so the ‘hand-holding’ is followed through from arrival hall to post-op.
‘When you pick up a client from the airport they latch onto you immediately and then their anxiety dissipates,’ says Melvill, ‘We are on 24-hour stand-by so that the client knows they have a lifeline – we have done housecalls at 3am.’
Chaperons are there to visit you in hospital, change dressings, coordinate outings, arrange your scarf and sunglasses, tell you you've made the right decision and give you Champagne and a hug if you need it. Shelley Watermeyer, a highly-qualified nurse and a guest-house owner, takes care of all the Surgeon and Safari clients in Cape Town . Watermeyer knows instinctively when a client is low and a massage or hair appointment is in order. ‘One of the most common apprehensions is “will I still be me when my family and friends see me again”,’ says Watermeyer, ‘They want to look “refreshed” but they still want to look like themselves. I usually suggest a make-over or a new hair-style because then people are more likely to say, “gosh you look different, it must be your hair!”’
Having the procedures was a major, major life change and I underwent a complete transformation. I would have no qualms about recommending it to anyone - my friends are all saving up!
Friends do come over, usually when a client comes for another procedure. We have a wonderful repeat client base.’ Says Melvill. Wagner attests to the same, ‘One client has come back three times in a year and a half. It’s not the particularly glamorous ones who come back. It’s women who suddenly have money to spend on themselves who get the bug.’ she adds, ‘We try to put people off doing that, we need to have some sort of moral code.’
I left South Africa with a lot, it really is such a lovely place. The people are so friendly and warm, it was such a refreshing change from England…
Recuperation in a luxury hotel is mostly preferred to safaris, but past the bandages and the big five, as Dr Christian Troy put it in Nip / Tuck it’s a business about helping people feel better about themselves.
I feel like it saved my life and changed my life. When I went to see Dr. Rick for my final consultation, he asked if I had any questions and I said, ‘Yes. Will you marry me?’ I could have just put him in my suitcase and brought him home! I think it’s such an injustice to the doctor if you deny you’ve had cosmetic surgery when he’s done such a good job. I just wanted to shout Dr. Rick’s name from the rooftops. In fact, I told him he should have tattooed on my boobs ‘Rick was here’!