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Another reason to visit Costa Rica

American tourists flock to Costa Rica for medical treatments.

SAN JOSE, Costa Rica — Sitting in sweatpants and a sweatshirt in a room overlooking the city, 57-year-old Marsha Ervin seems relaxed, refreshed — perhaps even like a new woman. Her trip to Costa Rica has meant a break from work at her Caring Comfort clinic in Washougal, Wash., where she assists elderly people with dementia and other age-related diseases.

But Ervin’s getaway — which she took with three friends — wasn’t your everyday rainforest canopy tour of the Costa Rican highlands. An elastic bandage is still wrapped vertically from the top of her head down to her neck, and some marks and swelling are visible on her face.

This Costa Rica holiday involved a face-lift and liposuction — or, as Ervin puts it, it was a chance to "freshen up."

The face-lift alone would have cost about $7,500 in the United States, she said. But at the Hospital La Catolica here, leading Costa Rican plastic surgeon Christian Rivera did the operation for about a third of that price.

“I had some lipo around my abdomen, and I had this turkey wobble on my chin taken care of … We just came to get freshened up. I feel wonderful,” Ervin said. (See this video for more about Ervin.)

Ervin is one of thousands of Americans who venture abroad every year for more affordable medical procedures, whether cosmetic or therapeutic. The trend is fueling a booming sector called "medical tourism." According to a study by Deloitte Consulting, some 750,000 Americans traveled abroad in 2007 for health treatment. That number is expected to skyrocket to 6 million by 2010.

Recognized for its high-level hospitals and doctors — many of whom boast U.S. medical school degrees — Costa Rica is a prime destination.

An estimated 20,000 health travelers sought treatment here last year, although no official count is available, said Dr. Alfredo Lopez, board member and spokesman for the Council of International Promotion of Costa Rica Medicine, or Promed. He said the number could be closer to 100,000, with more than 90 percent from the United States.