SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic (AP) -- Beverly Brignoni was a young New Yorker seeking a less expensive way to enhance her appearance and she did what many other people are now doing: travel to the Dominican Republic for cosmetic surgery.
It went horribly wrong. The 28-year-old died Feb. 20 from what the doctor told her family was a massive pulmonary embolism while getting a tummy tuck and liposuction at a clinic in the Dominican capital recommended by friends. Family members have serious questions about her death and want local authorities to investigate.
"We want to know exactly what happened," said Bernadette Lamboy, Brignoni's godmother. "We want to know if there was negligence."
The district attorney's office for Santo Domingo says it has not yet begun an investigation because it has not received a formal complaint from Brignoni's relatives. Family members say they plan to make one.
Shortly after Brignoni's death, the Health Ministry inspected the Vista del Jardin Medical Center where she was treated and ordered the operating room temporarily closed, citing the presence of bacteria and violations of bio-sanitary regulations. The doctor who performed the procedure and the clinic have not responded to requests for comment.
Brignoni's death is unusual, but it is not isolated. Concerns about the booming cosmetic surgery business in the Dominican Republic are enough of an issue that the State Department has posted a warning on its page for travel to that country, noting that in several cases U.S. citizens have suffered serious complications or died.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control issued an alert March 7 after health authorities in the United States reported that at least 19 women in five states had developed serious mycobacterial wound infections over the previous 12 months following cosmetic procedures in the Dominican Republic such as liposuction, tummy tucks and breast implants.
There were no reported deaths in those cases, but treatment for these types of infections, which have been caused in the past by contaminated medical equipment, tend to involve long courses of antibiotics and can require new surgery to remove infected tissue and drain fluid, said Dr. Douglas Esposito, a CDC medical officer.
"Some of these patients end up going through one or more surgeries and various travels through the medical system," Esposito said. "They take a long time typically to get better."
The Dominican Republic, like countries such as Mexico, Costa Rica and Thailand, has promoted itself as a destination for medical tourism, so-called because people will often tack on a few days at a resort after undergoing surgery. The main allure is much lower costs along with the promise that conditions will be on par with what a patient would encounter at home.
In 2013, there were more than 1,000 cosmetic procedures performed in the Dominican Republic, 60 percent of them on foreigners, according to the country's Plastic Surgery Society.
The Internet is flooded with advertisements and testimonials from people who say they have had successful procedures in the Dominican Republic, and an industry of "recovery houses" has sprung up to serve clients, along with promoters who canvass for clients in the United States. The price is often about a third of the cost in the United States.
Dr. Braun Graham, a plastic surgeon in Sarasota, Florida, says he done corrective surgery on people for what he says were inferior procedures abroad. He warns that even if a foreign doctor is talented, nurses and support staff may lack adequate training.
"Clearly, the cost savings is certainly not worth the increased risk of a fatal complication," said Graham, past president for Florida Society of Plastic Surgeons.
Brignoni was referred to the Vista del Jardin Medical Center by several acquaintances in the New York borough of The Bronx where she lived, said Lamboy and Lenny Ulloa, the father of the 4-year-old daughter she left behind.
"Supposedly, it was a high-end clinic, one of the best in the city," Ulloa said.
The doctor who performed Brignoni's procedure, Guillermo Lorenzo, is certified by the Plastic Surgery Society, but there are at least 300 surgeons performing cosmetic procedures who are not, said Dr. Severo Mercedes, the organization's director. He said the government knows about the problem but has not taken any action. "We complain but we can't go after anyone because we're not law enforcement," Mercedes said.
The number of people pursuing treatment in the Dominican Republic doesn't seem to have been affected by negative reports, including a previous CDC warning about a cluster of 12 infections in 2003-04.