This Is What Happens When People Travel the World to Save Their Own Lives

More and more Americans are heading to Asia, Europe, or the Caribbean to receive the life-saving medical care they need. Sure, you can save thousands, but medical tourism does have risks. These real-life stories illustrate some of the ups and downs.

Medical tourism is growing

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Patients from all over the world engage in medical tourism, which simply means traveling to receive medical care in another country. India and Thailand (and the United States, for non-Americans) have long been top destinations, but more patients are now seeking out doctors in Europe and the Caribbean as well. Cost is often a major reason patients travel for care. By some estimates, a heart bypass surgery that costs $210,000 here would cost just $12,000 in Thailand; in Singapore, a knee replacement typically runs about $13,000—$22,000 less than it would cost in the United States. Such huge cost savings are even attracting some American employers and insurance companies to officially offer medical travel options to their employees and clients. Don’t miss these 16 things you need to know before taking on a knee replacement surgery.

Seeking experimental treatments

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Russia, China, and certain Caribbean countries promote themselves as destinations for patients looking for medications or procedures that aren’t approved by medical regulators in their home countries (such as the FDA). It’s sometimes referred to as “circumvention tourism,” and it’s a thorny issue, say experts: Some clinics give unwitting foreign patients untested or even fraudulent “cures,” while others provide safe, state-of-the-art procedures that are still being studied in the United States. This teen’s own cells cured her leukemia, but almost killed her first.

“Caribbean” prostate cancer treatment

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When retired teacher Jim Wickstrom was diagnosed with prostate cancer at age 63, he read everything he could get his hands on about the disease and his treatment options. One in nine men will get prostate cancer in their lifetimes and it’s highly curable when caught early. But common treatments such as radiation and surgery carry risks of urinary or bowel incontinence and erectile dysfunction. So Wickstrom chose a different option: High-intensity focused ultrasound (HIFU)—a noninvasive procedure that at the time wasn’t approved in the United States.

Stephen Scionti, MD, one of several American urologists trained in HIFU at the time, met Wickstrom in the Caribbean to do the procedure. “We traveled to Bermuda for my outpatient HIFU and the day after […] I walked a mile and had no pain,” says Wickstrom, who is now 70 and still cancer-free. “My goal was to get rid of the cancer and come out continent and potent. I did.” HIFU has since been approved by the FDA for use in the United States, although it is still not covered by most U.S. insurance companies.

Men, here are 9 things your prostate secretly wants to tell you.

A viral cure for a deadly infection?

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At age 51, Laura Roberts was told she had just three months to live. Seven years earlier, Roberts had developed a staph infection caused by methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus that would not respond to even the strongest antibiotics. The infection had spread to her lungs, ears, and stomach and her doctors were out of ideas. Then she saw a story on television about a treatment called “phage therapy,” widely used in Eastern Europe and Russia, in which viruses called “bacteriophages” are used to attack and kill antibiotic-resistant bacteria. “I didn’t know if it could help me, but if I was going to die, I was going to die fighting,” Roberts told Prevention magazine.

Roberts traveled 23 hours to the Phage Therapy Center in Tbilisi, Georgia, to receive three weeks of treatment. It worked. “It’s a shame that you have to fly to Georgia to save your life,” Roberts says. “It’s a shame phages are not available in the U.S. I hope that happens in my lifetime.” American doctors like Timothy Lu, associate professor of biological engineering at MIT, are trying to make that happen by working with other organizations such as the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research and AmpliPhi Biosciences to move phage therapies through the testing and approval process in the United States. Read about five more stunning medical miracles.

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