Another reason to visit Costa Rica

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.

Costa Rican tourism and trade officials are betting that America's health care woes — the high cost of health care, the problem of health insurance and the current economic downtown — will send even more Americans abroad for medical treatment.

“We want to take the guy that just lost his medical insurance in the U.S. and his wife has gall stones,” said Lopez, who also runs a medical travel agency, Medical Services of Costa Rica. According to Lopez, a procedure costing $20,000 in the United States, “we can do it here for $8,000.”

Bracing for a boom, several internationally recognized private Costa Rican hospitals are expanding to make room for travelers.

Hospital La Catolica, which is in the process of obtaining the internationally recognized Joint Commission approval, has averaged more than 70 health tourists a month since it started keeping count in December.

La Catolica — which was founded in 1963 by Franciscan nuns and bought in 2006 by a private company, Grupo Sama — this month unveiled a new “hotel” on hospital premises, right where the convent used to be. The 33-room lodging area is a post-operation recovery center, equipped with special hospital beds for patients and normal beds for their accompanying friends and family.

Though the nuns have gone, the convent’s colonial design remains. Religious Guatemalan artwork adorns the walls of hallways and hotel rooms, lending an air of hotel-hospital for the believer. The just-formed medical tourism department at the hospital is tasked with welcoming guests, and helping to plan outings — a little nip ‘n tuck between trips to a volcano or the coffee plantation.

And La Catolica isn't alone.

The already approved CIMA Hospital, which has Joint Commission approval, plans to build a new mega-clinic. The development will have restaurants and apartment-hotels in the northwestern province of Guanacaste, a longtime hub for American tourists and owners of second homes.

CIMA CEO Dr. Carole Veloso said Costa Rican doctors are seeing a rise in non-cosmetic health patients, who come for anything from dental work to gastric bypass surgery. This trend is a departure from the tradition of the country's hospitals being a sort of plastic surgery paradise.

Jennifer Blankenship, 48, who recently received stem cell treatment at CIMA Hospital, is a case in point.

Diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1984, Blankenship could hardly move before her visit to Costa Rica. She slurred badly, she said over the phone from her Denver, Colo., home. She was desperate for treatment. “I had done all the western medicine there is to try for MS,” she said.

After some online research, stem cells seemed like the best option, she said. But in the United States, the only thing that came close was a lab that “wanted me to pay $150,000 to use me as a guinea pig.”

Blankenship contacted medical travel group Bridge Health International, which prepared an all-inclusive trip to Costa Rica — flights, a stay at the post-op hotel Paradise Inn, food, taxi rides and treatment with umbilical cord stem cells at CIMA Hospital. The weeklong trip cost $15,000 for Blankenship and her brother.

“I noticed about 24 hours after the first IV — that’s the first time I had any of the stem cells put in my body — I started moving my left leg, which I hadn’t moved for years,” she recalled. “And my brother, who took me down there, was sitting next to me and he started to cry. It was incredible.”

Earlier this month, U.S. President Barack Obama pledged Americans a cure for “the crushing cost of health care.” Until his promised health-care reforms go through, cheaper care south of the border will be waiting.

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