Disfigurement, painful wounds and lives that will never be the same – more than 300 people across the UK have returned in horrific conditions after traveling abroad for plastic surgery in the last four years, Sky News can exclusively reveal.
Warning: This article contains distressing images.
In August 2020, primary school teacher Michelle Williams decided to undergo, what should have been, a simple nose job in Turkey.
However, the mother-of-one’s surgery did not go as planned, and she suffered severe complications and has been left in a permanent vegetative state.
Unable to speak, walk, or do anything for herself, the 47-year-old, who had been living in Turkey for just a few months at the time, returned to the UK on a private ambulance flight and now lives in a care facility in London.
“She was definitely outgoing, very funny, very family oriented and just a lover of life really,” her sister Nikisha Lynch told Sky News.
“It’s been harrowing… It’s taken a toll on the family, definitely. It’s been very, very hard.
“It’s been hard for her daughter. We go to see her as much as we can, we try to do as much for her, but knowing that she cannot do anything for herself, it’s heartbreaking.”
What happened to Michelle during her surgery remains unclear, but a legal case has now been brought against all of those who were involved in her medical care.
‘Package deals’, long waivers and cash payments – the legal problems when things go wrong
Unfortunately, the legal route is not straightforward, and taking action can cost more than the surgery itself.
The lawyer working on Michelle’s case told Sky News that her claim is strong, but it’s “actually pretty hard for a foreigner to file a case in Turkey for medical negligence”.
“It could take up to two years in front of Turkish courts to prove a negligence claim,” Burcu Holmgren said.
She explained that it can be “very hard” to prove medical negligence if the person does not have the correct documents and if they have booked the surgery through a “package deal”.
The type of bundles typically include flights, accommodation and surgery, and Ms Holmgren said this can make it “really tricky” as a surgeon or a hospital has not been contracted directly.
Another issue is that “most of the time” patients are asked to pay in cash and sign waivers, which are “very wide”.
“They go much beyond the complications that any operation can have. And then they literally sign their rights away. So overcoming that becomes a problem as well,” Ms Holmgren added.
‘My legs were necrotic’ – a surgery that turned into a deadly situation
One of those people was Michelle Heath.
Over the course of a decade, she worked hard for her dream body, losing more than 10 stone – but she couldn’t shift the loose skin left behind.
“When I was body building, I noticed my back was hanging, my inner legs were hanging down my knees. And it wasn’t just ugly, but it was painful,” Michelle said.
She spent years tucking the sagging skin into her underwear, and eventually decided she needed a more permanent solution.
Michelle paid around £4,173 for a package deal which included a leg and back lift, flights, and a five-night stay in Turkey.
She returned to Northern Ireland with open wounds and serious infections, requiring two further surgeries and skin grafts.
The 40-year-old has claimed that liposuction was carried out without her permission, as well as a Brazillian bum lift, which she was not aware of until the third day of her recovery.
“Of every bit of surgery that was done to me, none of them worked,” she said.
She explained that the pain was so bad she was unable to sit on the toilet, she urinated herself and passed out in front of a doctor.
After realizing she was not getting the care she required in Turkey, Ms Heath decided to return home, where she was taken to hospital after her wound “opened up by an inch”.
“My legs were necrotic, they needed debridement. And then a week later the back had opened up, so I needed major skin grafts,” Ms Heath said.
“I’m not proud of putting the stress on the NHS… but I do believe the NHS should have fixed this for me.”
100% of surgical complications reported to organization came from Turkey
According to the British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons (BAAPS), a total of 324 people required treatment back in the UK for serious complications after having cosmetic surgery abroad over the last four years.
The “alarming” figures shows 44% more people required corrective procedures on the NHS after traveling to another country for plastic surgery in 2021, compared to the year before.
This is despite being advised against elective procedures and unnecessary travel due to the covid pandemic.
Of those, 75 women and seven men were treated for complications, including severe hospitalizing infections, emergency surgery to remove dead skin tissue, and some forced to go on life support.
It estimates that for each patient that requires urgent medical care as a result of health tourism, it can cost the NHS an estimated £15,000.
‘A living hell’ – Woman can’t close her eye after facelift
Among those women was Angela Perkins, who paid £8,000 for a facelift in Turkey that went disastrously wrong.
The 57-year-old has been left with a disfigured face and is unable to close her right eye as a result of the procedure.
Ms Perkins, whose name has been changed, now faces paying £30,000 for multiple surgeries to correct her eyes, ears, cheek, and neck.
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“If someone had told me how much the decision to go to Turkey could have cost me financially, physically and emotionally, I would never have got on that plane,” she said.
“The last 16 months of my life have been a living hell.”
BAAPS found that 100% of surgical complications reported to them last year came from Turkey, with breast surgery procedures accounting for 25%.
These figures are only based on data from BAAPs members. It says the scale of the issue is likely far worse.
Compulsory insurance could make people ‘think twice’
BAAPS is calling for cosmetic surgery travel insurance to be made compulsory to help tackle the growing number of botched cases.
With many patients choosing to travel abroad to simply cut costs, the higher complication risks tend to be glossed over, the organization said.
“When patients go abroad for cosmetic surgery, they usually have no knowledge of the competence and experience of the surgeon, and there is very little prospect of follow-up care and advice,” said BAAPS president Mary O’Brien.
She added that patients only meet their surgeon immediately before a procedure, at which point they have generally committed and paid for the surgery.
“Patients then return to the UK without adequate medical records, if any. Follow-up is difficult. Complications do occur and are usually left to the British system to pick up,” Ms O’Brien said.
She believes introducing compulsory insurance could make people “think twice about a decision that could have serious, if not lethal, consequences”.