Mom battles fungal meningitis after cosmetic surgery at Mexico clinic linked to deadly outbreak
"Impact x Nightline" explores the risks of Mexico’s medical tourism industry.
An Arizona woman is fighting for her life after contracting fungal meningitis following a plastic surgery procedure at a private clinic in Matamoros, Mexico.
Alondra Lomas is one of nine confirmed cases of the life-threatening infection in an outbreak the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says is tied to cosmetic surgery clinics in the Mexican city that borders Brownsville, Texas. So far, at least seven women have died – one in Mexico and six Americans, according to the CDC.
The fatalities, Lomas says, include another woman she says she befriended in Mexico and who had plastic surgery at the same clinic just two hours after her own procedure.
When asked what her greatest fear is, an emotional Lomas told “Impact x Nightline” from her hospital room, “Death. And I only say that because I have not seen one lady leave. I have not seen no girl go home yet.”
The latest “Impact” episode, “If Looks Could Kill,” explores the medical tourism industry in Mexico, the destination for some patients who travel from the U.S. seeking less expensive medical care, including elective cosmetic surgery. Mexico was the second most popular destination for medical tourism around the world in 2020, according to Patients Beyond Borders. Thailand was the No. 1 most popular destination.
Lomas, a mother of two, sought out plastic surgery, specifically liposuction and a so-called Brazilian butt lift, after she says two C-section births left her with sagging skin on her stomach area.
The surgeon she chose, Dr. Luis Manuel Rivera de Anda, offered a variety of cosmetic surgeries at what seemed like bargain prices, Lomas said. At first, Lomas says she was nervous and scared, but then started to feel happy at the prospect of being able to “get the body that [she] wants.”
Lomas flew to Brownsville, Texas, then crossed the border to Matamoros. Dr. Rivera worked out of Clinica K-3, Lomas said. Like many Mexican clinics, surgery there is done using epidurals for anesthesia.
After the procedure, Lomas says she began to experience headaches and back pain while home in Arizona until it finally got so bad that she couldn’t walk. Lomas immediately reached out to the surgical coordinator and doctor, but she says they didn’t have any real answers. Throughout April, the symptoms would come and go.
Lomas said she began to experience worsening symptoms, including fatigue and hallucinations. On May 7, she went to St. Joseph’s Medical Center in Phoenix, where she was diagnosed with fungal meningitis.
“The doctors told me that if I didn’t go in time, I could have died within 24 hours because this is a fatal infection,” Lomas said.
Meningitis occurs when an infection causes inflammation in the protective membranes that surround the brain and spinal cord. Most of the time, the infection is viral or bacterial. Fungal meningitis is much more rare. Symptoms like backaches, headaches and sensitivity to light usually appear gradually, making it harder to diagnose.
Getting treatment as early as possible is critical to survival, according to Dr. Tom Chiller, who runs the fungal disease branch of the CDC.
By May 11, the CDC had enough cases in the U.S. to notify Mexican officials about the outbreak, linking them to cosmetic surgery in Matamoros. They identified two private clinics – Riverside Surgical Center and Clinica K-3, where Lomas had her surgery.
“The strongest hypothesis right now is that a batch of these drugs used for anesthesia, either epidural or spinal anesthesia, were contaminated,” Dr. Vicente Joel Hernandez Navarro, state secretary of health for Tamaulipas, Mexico, told “Impact.”
Both Clinica K-3 and Riverside have been shut down, Navarro said, adding that 10 other clinics are being investigated and currently closed for failing to comply with health requirements.
Both clinics linked to the outbreak, along with Dr. Rivera, did not respond to a request for comment.
The CDC has issued an alert, telling anyone who had procedures under epidural anesthesia at the two clinics between Jan. 1 and May 13 of this year to go to their local emergency room and get tested for meningitis. The CDC is tracking about 200 people they know had surgery in Matamoros and could be at risk.
This isn’t the first time Mexico has dealt with an outbreak. Just six months ago, there were 80 confirmed cases of fungal meningitis linked to a medical center in the Mexican state of Durango, the New York Times reported. Thirty-nine women died.
The issue isn’t limited to Mexico. In 2012, dozens died after 14,000 people were exposed to tainted steroid injections in the U.S, according to the CDC.
After more than a month in the hospital, Lomas said her treatment didn’t appear to be working, so doctors performed brain surgery to create a port that delivers the anti-fungal medication directly to the infection. It appears the surgery worked, she says, but she’s not out of the woods yet.
"So I try to, you know, stay positive, because I need to be there for my children, you know? I don't wanna have another party in the hospital because my son's birthday is in August. I wanna be able to go home and be present," Lomas said.
"Impact x Nightline" is now streaming on Hulu. The episode was produced by ABC News' Knez Walker, Stephanie Fasano, Zach Fannin, Caroline Pahl, Jaclyn Skurie, Anne Laurent, Tara Guaimano and Candace Smith Chekwa.