After a series of deaths and life-changing complications following weight-loss surgery abroad, Fabulous investigates the dangers behind this growing trend.
On August 25 this year, surrounded by devastated family members, Shannon Meenan Browse took her final breath.
It wasn’t an illness or an accident that claimed the life of the 32-year-old mum from Derry, Northern Ireland, but complications following bariatric (weight-loss) surgery abroad.
The procedure left Shannon barely able to eat, and because of this, over 18 months, she slowly starved, before going into multiple organ failure and dying.
Back in February 2022, Shannon had kissed her husband Don, 36, and their sons Tiernan,14, twins Dylan and Darragh, seven, and Noah, five, goodbye and boarded a flight to Turkey for weight-loss surgery, at a cost of around £3,000.
“She was nervous,” says Don, a full-time dad. “But she was also determined this was something she wanted to do. She’d seen images online of other women who’d had the surgery in Turkey, as well as a friend of a friend who’d had it. It was a popular thing to do in the area we live in.”
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Prior to her operation, Shannon lost 5st over three years through exercise. According to her social media posts, she weighed around 16st at the start of her journey. But after being diagnosed with myopathy, a condition that affects the muscles controlling voluntary movement, her ability to exercise was adversely impacted.
“When she told me she was going abroad for a gastric sleeve, because it was around a third of the cost of having it in the UK, I told her she was perfect to me, but I’d support whatever decision she made,” Don says. “I just wanted her to be happy.”
It was a decision that would cost the young mother her life. Tragically, her death is the latest in a series of women from the UK who have travelled abroad for weight-loss surgery – and died. In July this year, the Foreign Office issued a warning to Brits travelling to Turkey for medical treatments, after learning of 25 people who have died there since January 2019.
Shannon Bowe was one of them. In April, the 28 year old from Denny, near Falkirk, died in Turkey while undergoing gastric band surgery. Her heartbroken boyfriend Ross posted a tribute on social media that read: “Sleep tight my angel, love you forever and always.” It remains unclear what complications led to Shannon’s death.
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Grandmother Carol Keenan, 54, from Fife, died in Istanbul in April 2022, six days after having a Brazilian butt lift (BBL) and tummy tuck, for which she paid £7,000. She also accepted an offer of free abdominal muscle repair surgery. Her family are still awaiting autopsy results to learn what caused Carol’s death.
In August 2020, mum-of-three Abimbola Ajoke Bamgbose, 38, from Dartford, Kent, died two weeks after having a BBL and liposuction in Turkey. The social worker paid £5,000 for the surgery, after becoming fed up with people asking if she was pregnant.
The inquest into her death recorded a “narrative conclusion” following complications of cosmetic surgery. Long NHS waiting lists, social media advertising and the cheaper cost of surgery abroad have combined to create this trend for travelling overseas for weight-loss ops, and it’s been estimated by the British Obesity & Metabolic Surgery Society that up to 6,000 Brits are now making these trips annually.
Mr Ahmed Ahmed is an NHS and private consultant bariatric surgeon, and says cost is a big factor driving this trend. “If someone is quoted £2,000 for surgery instead of £12,000 for a private procedure in theUK, that’s going to have a big impact on their decision,” he says. “And even for patients who are entitled to this sort of surgery on the NHS, the post-pandemic waiting lists for elective surgery are up to three years long.”
‘I’ve treated patients that haven’t been stitched up properly’
He adds: “Patients are being swayed by cheaper prices and immediate access to surgery, but are not grasping the potential risks of having this kind of surgery abroad. It requires an advanced set of surgical skills to perform it safely. If it’s costing one-tenth of the price, then you have to ask whether or not corners are being cut.
“The surgeon abroad may not have been properly trained, which may lead to errors and complications.
"Other countries may not have the same standards of healthcare and infection control as we do here, especially when it comes to things like only using certain instruments once and sterilising equipment and operating theatres.
"And, critically, not all of these clinics will have an intensive care unit if a patient falls seriously ill. Additionally, in the UK, we carry out essential aftercare, whereas in some countries, people are sent home on a plane the next day.”
Mr Ahmed says at his NHS clinic he sees around one patient a week who’s recently had weight-loss surgery abroad, and is experiencing complications post-op, as well as two to three patients who have been referred by a GP weeks, or even months, after surgery.
“I’ve treated complications including infections, internal bleeding and leakages, where people haven’t been stitched up properly, which can be life-threatening,” he says.
“Internal scarring can impact the intestines working properly, and hernias can develop, causing pain and discomfort.”
Shannon Meenan Browse travelled to Turkey with a friend, and flew home a week after having the procedure, which typically removes 80% of the stomach.
“She’d been advised to stick to a liquid-only diet to begin with, then purées, before reintroducing small quantities of solid food,” explains Don.
“It was when she tried to eat solids we realised something wasn’t right. She could only manage a couple of mouthfuls, then would start throwing up. She was vomiting several times a day.
“It didn’t get any better with time. The weight was falling off, being sick was rotting her teeth and her hair began to fall out, as she was so malnourished,” adds Don.
According to Don, when Shannon sought advice from the Turkish clinic, she was told to go back to liquids only, then try to work her way back up to solids.
Mr Ahmed Ahmed says a number of complications could have occurred during Shannon’s surgery, such as the sleeve being too tight or too narrow, which can cause vomiting, or a twist occurring, which can cause problems with swallowing.
“She was put on a waiting list to have an endoscopy so NHS doctors could look at what was going on inside, but she never made it to the top of the list,” says Don.
“She was admitted to hospital several times and placed on a drip for dehydration.
'She was prescribed folic acid and vitamins, because she wasn’t getting those through her diet, although she wasn’t always able to keep those tablets down.’’
In June, Shannon posted on Facebook that she had lost 8st – half her original weight. But Don says she was weakened after months of starvation, unable to leave home or be the mum she wanted to be, and deeply regretted having the surgery.
The following month, Shannon was admitted to ICU at Altnagelvin Hospital in Derry.
Her organs were failing and, although an air ambulance was arranged to fly her to London for a liver transplant, she was too sick.
She was placed on life support and, after five weeks in hospital, passed away with Don, Tiernan and other family members around her.
‘I couldn’t walk or stop being sick, but they told me it was normal
For mum-of-two Louise Rodgers, 48, from West Yorkshire, gastric sleeve surgery in Turkey in October 2022 left her fighting for her life.
“After pregnancy and perimenopause, my weight went up from 9st 3lb to 16st 8lb, which at 5ft 6in made me morbidly obese, and caused my self-worth to plummet,” says Louise. “I tried to diet, but never successfully.”
When two friends revealed they’d had gastric sleeve surgery in Cyprus and Turkey, Louise decided to do the same. “I couldn’t believe their transformations. It was their confidence as much as their weight loss that I wanted,” she says.
Louise discussed surgery with her GP, but was shocked to hear she wasn’t heavy enough to qualify for the operation on the NHS.
She looked into private clinics, but couldn’t afford the £12,000 bill, so decided to book with a Turkish clinic she found online, for a gastric sleeve costing £3,000, which she paid for by using her savings.
“My husband Steve and friends and family were concerned,” Louise recalls.
“But I told them I’d chosen a safe and reputable clinic based on months of online research.”Louise flew to Turkey with a friend, and a day later, after signing forms in Turkish she didn’t understand, as there were no staff able to translate, she was wheeled into surgery.
“I woke up three hours later into a painful, sickening blur and threw up blood.
"I felt horrendous and I couldn’t stop being sick. I couldn’t walk either, yet they told me this was all normal,” she says.
Louise was discharged 48 hours after her operation. She went back to her hotel, where she spent the night in pain and vomiting, before being taken to the airport.
Back home, Louise’s husband Steve, 50, was shocked to see the state she was in. “The skin on my abdomen was black and blue,” she says. “I was in agony and scared.”
She saw her GP the next day, who said the bruising was from the surgery, and the pain could be from trapped wind. But that night she was rushed to hospital by ambulance after throwing up blood all over her bed.
“A CT scan revealed my stomach was full of blood. My stomach had been stapled together after a section of it was removed, and a leak had developed. I was admitted to ICU and doctors told Steve to prepare himself, as I may not make it.
“The doctor said my stomach was like a bombsite, it had filled with blood for so long it was impossible for them to repair it.
"A decision was made to give it a chance to heal naturally, rather than remove what was left, in the hope it could be repaired.
“In the meantime, I needed a drip directly into my bloodstream to provide nutrients, as I couldn’t eat,” she says. Louise spent 14 weeks in hospital. “I couldn’t believe that I’d tried to improve my health and body and it had led me here.” In February, Louise was discharged with a feeding tube, still unable to eat. “Back home I needed help to walk, shower and go to the toilet. Constantly attached to my feeding machine, unsure if I’d be on it forever, I felt a burden,” she says. “My mental health was a mess and every day was a struggle.”
In April, Louise had healed enough for the feeding line to be removed, and for her to start eating puréed foods.
“Now I can eat tiny meals, like a slice of fish or a scrambled egg,” she says.
“But food has lost all its joy – one bite too many will result in me throwing up, as my stomach is so tiny and fragile.
"I’m 11st 3lb and a size 12. I should be ecstatic – it’s what I dreamed of.
"But it wasn’t worth the sickness, insomnia, pain and depression, nor the anguish for everyone who loves me. I live in constant fear, not knowing what might happen to my body tomorrow. I wish I’d never got on that plane.”
Back in Derry, where he is supporting his young sons and grieving for his wife, Don says speaking about Shannon’s death is what she would have wanted.
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“She regretted having that operation, and her legacy is to warn others to think very carefully about making the same choice she did,” he says. “There are safer ways to lose weight, and being slim is not worth losing your life for.”
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