Come to sunny South Africa, have a facelift, see a lion.
By Julienne du Toit and photographs by Chris Marais, Main Line Media
Sheilla, by her own admission, was in a good place in her life. A successful businesswoman in the UK, she was also a happy mother and grandmother, and in a secure relationship. And with make-up on, Sheilla was undeniably attractive.
"The problem was that jowls had started to appear in the last couple of years, and I had quite deep frown lines from my nose to my jawline. Bags were appearing under my eyes also."
Having a facelift started as a joke with her friends, but as time went on, she thought: why not? When a colleague came dashing round with a newspaper in his hand about Surgeon & Safari tours in South Africa, it all fell into place.
"There were so many benefits. Firstly, there was the skill of the surgeons, and the standard of medical care offered. Secondly the wonderful thought of recuperating in luxury and anonymity with complete rest, and the chance to recover before going home. And thirdly, of course, the cost of the package, which was less in total than I had been quoted for surgery only in England."
Surgeon & Safari is the brainchild of Lorraine Melvill, a South African marketing executive who stumbled on the idea when she organised a facelift for an American relative eighteen months ago.
"I’d been looking for something to ignite my passion, and suddenly I saw the opportunity. I’m so positive about South Africa. I know we have great surgeons, and here was a chance to turn the dreadful exchange rate to our advantage."
Her business model is so intriguing, in e-commerce terms, that she was recently invited out by the prestigious Institute of Directors in London to make a presentation on it. Through the internet, she reaches a global market for a local service.
Time Magazine has carried articles on Surgeon & Safari. So has Wall Street Journal, the London Evening Standard, the Los Angeles Times.
A year ago, she brought out her first patient from the US. Now there are five new patients arriving a week.
It’s a winning formula. For the price of a facelift in the US, for example, you can have a facelift, tummy-tuck and liposuction, be operated on by an attentive world-class surgeon, recuperate in five-class luxury at The Westcliff or Mount Nelson, with a safari and a return plane ticket included.
"It’s so positive for South Africa. None of these people had ever been in the country before. Now all of them want to come back to explore the country more. On average, they bring R100 000 into the country. Two of them now want to establish businesses here, and another client from the UK has decided to move to South Africa permanently.
"The amazing thing is, that they find this such a rejuvenating experience, not just physically, but on a soul level too."
One of her satisfied clients, Tuula of New York, sent an e-mail to Lorraine saying "The trip to SA was one of the most powerful experiences of my life. What started as a ‘beauty treatment’ turned into a soul-searching pilgrimage. Truly, I discovered myself during this trip. The effects have been so powerful and will reflect in my life here in the US as well."
Lorraine says she feels there is some kind of earth energy centred in South Africa. Her favourite quote is from former President Nelson Mandela: "Each time on of us touches the soil of this land, we feel a sense of personal renewal." It resonates with her.
"You know, after the operation, people have time to reflect, to spend a lot of time on their own. They’re cocooned from the outside world. What starts as a renewal on the surface goes deeper. And I also find that being in the bush an incredibly soulful experience.
"They find the personal attention and beauty of the country quite unexpected, and they leave touched by the heart of Africa. In fact, a lot of them say they’ve never had this kind of service.
"We South Africans don’t realise how good we have it. The Americans rave about how great our hospitals are, the facilities and the nursing staff."
The clients are mostly women, but there’s increasing interest from men. Lorraine has had married pensioners and gay couples coming out too.
The vast bulk of the services offered are cosmetic procedures – face lifts, nose surgery, breast lifts, tummy tucks, liposuction. But Surgeon & Safari is branching out further, and she’s now offering eye procedures, fertility treatment, knee and hip replacements, and most recently, dental surgery.
"It’s good for the country, and it’s good for me," says Rick van der Poel, plastic and reconstructive surgeon operating out of Johannesburg. He’s treating about eight foreign tourists a month now. "It’s a great concept. It brings in people who would never have thought of coming to South Africa."
The doctors are carefully chosen, not only for their skill and reputation, but for their willingness to put the client first. "I’ve kicked someone off the programme already, because he was too ego driven."
Initial consultations can be telephonic, with posted or emailed pictures of the offending part. And people can be turned away at this point, says Lorraine. More lately, though, the surgeons sometimes fly to London or New York and doing initial consultations there.
This country has enough Third World in it to frighten off First Worlders, but Lorraine wins them over by personal attention, immediate replies to e-mails, by assuring clients that they should empower themselves with knowledge, and never to go ahead unless they are completely comfortable.
A big part of the Surgeon & Safari service revolves around Lorraine’s being a "friend away from home". She, or a carefully chosen colleague, will ferry the clients around to consultations, be there before the surgery and when they come out, go and try on new bras, listen to them.
"As I meet them at the airport, I give them a big hug, connect with them and welcome them to South Africa. The Brits, especially, are quite taken aback, but they love it.
Her toughest client to date has been a woman by the name of Barbara Patz from Baltimore in the US. "I’m at an age where I wanted to turn the clock back a little, if possible, and I had talked to surgeons in the US, but never felt comfortable."
Lorraine says it took six months of correspondence back and forth to assure Barbara that the surgeons were good.
"I had always wanted to travel to South Africa," said Barbara. "So prior to going, I had decided that if I was not comfortable with the surgeon – or any aspect of the procedures – I would not go through with the surgeries and would simply have a great two-week vacation.
She travelled with her fiance, who also had surgery done to his eyelids. "Am I happy with the outcome? In a word, I am ecstatic, as is my fiance. When we got back, not one person guessed the true nature of the trip. Rather, the reaction has been ‘Africa certainly agreed with you!’ We loved everything about Johannesburg, the reserve we visited, the people, the restaurants… and look forward to spending more time there and in other parts of South Africa."
Not all the clients go on safari – that's often a ruse to hide the true purpose of the trip. But Lorraine has organised top class South African destinations – wine estates like Grade Roche, bush lodges like Singita, whale trips, township visits, the Blue Train, Roves. There are day trips too, for those getting cabin fever in their rooms.