Is it safe to fly after surgery?


Long haul flights are a health risk for everyone

While the risks of prolonged immobility and pulmonary embolism with long distance travel are well-known, many potential patients are unaware of the increased risks of thromboembolism after surgery.

Increased risks in specialized populations

People with a personal or family history of previous blood clots (PE or DVT), women on oral contraceptives, and patients who have undergone orthopedic surgery are some of the people at greatest risk.

Increased risk after surgery + Long trips

The heightened risk of thromboembolism or blood clots may persist for weeks after surgery.  When combined with long-haul flights, the risk increases exponentially.

In fact, these risks are one of the reasons I began investigating medical tourism options in the Americas – as an alternative to 18 hour flights to Asia and India.

Want to reduce your risk – Follow the instructions in your in-flight magazine

Guidelines and airline in-flight magazines promote the practice of in-flight exercise to reduce this risk – but few have investigated the risks of thromboembolism in post-surgical patients by modes of transportation: car travel versus air travel.

airplane3

But, is it safe to fly after surgery?

This spring, Dr. Stephen Cassivi, a thoracic surgeon at the world-famous Mayo Clinic in Minnesota tried to answer that question with a presentation of data at the  the annual meeting of the American Association for Thoracic Surgery.

This question takes on additional significance when talking about patients who have had lung surgeries.  Some of these patients require oxygen in the post-operative period, and the effects of changes in altitude* (while widely speculated about) with air travel, have never been studied in this population.

Now, Dr. Cassivi and his research team, say yes – it is safe.  Mayo Clinic is home t0 one of the most robust medical travel services in the United States for both domestic and international medical tourists.

After following hundreds of patients post-operatively and comparing their mode of transportation  – Dr. Cassivi concludes that the risks posed by automobile travel and air travel after surgery are about the same.

Additional reading

For more information on deep vein thrombosis, pulmonary embolism and safe travel, read my examiner article here.

AATS poster presentation abstract:

Safety of Air Travel in the Immediate Postoperative Period Following Anatomic Pulmonary Resection
*Stephen D. Cassivi, Karlyn E. Pierson, Bettie J. Lechtenberg, *Mark S. Allen, Dennis A. Wigle, *Francis C. Nichols, III, K. Robert Shen, *Claude Deschamps
Mayo Clinic, Rochester, MN

Schwarz T, Siegert G, Oettler W, et al. Venous Thrombosis After Long-haul Flights.  Arch Intern Med. 2003;163(22):2759-2764. doi:10.1001/archinte.163.22.2759 .  This is some of the definitive work that discussed the risk of long flights with blood clots in the traveling population due to prolonged immobility.

*Most flights are pressurized to an altitude of around 8,000 feet – which is the same level as Bogotá, Colombia.  This is higher than Flagstaff, AZ, Lake Tahoe, Nevada, Denver, Colorado or Mexico City, D.F.  – all of which are locations where some visitors feel physical effects from the altitude (headaches, fatigue, dyspnea, or air hunger.  In extreme (and rare) cases, people can develop cerebral edema or other life-threatening complications at these altitudes**.

** Severe effects like cerebral edema are much more common at extreme altitudes such as the Base Camp of Mt. Everest but have occurred in susceptible individuals at lower levels.

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Punta Pacifica, Hospital San Tomas and Centro Medico Paitilla


**Due to some unforeseen changes in my itinerary, I can only provide just a brief overview of some of the facilities in Panama City, which falls far short of my usual.**

Centro Medico Paitillo (CMP)

Balboa Ave. and 53rd Street

Website: http://centromedicopaitilla.com/

Founded in 1975, CMP has grown to become the largest private facility, though  Punta Pacifica appears to rapidly approaching on their heels.  They have several well-established international health insurance programs and the hallways were well populated with English-speaking visitors and patients.  The hospital has community outreach and health promotion classes as well as a 64 slice CT scanner, MRI and other diagnostic capabilities.

Website is attractive, and well-designed with English and Spanish versions.

Clinica Hospital San Fernando

Via Espana Las Sabanas

Website: http://www.hospitalsanfernando.com

There are two facilities for Hospital San Fernando; a Panama City facility and another facility in Coronado. The Panama city facility is one of two Panamanian facilities accredited by Joint Commission International.  This is a private facility designed to entice foreign visitors and upwardly mobile Panamanians.

Website with English language version that includes price quotes for International travelers. Website is well-designed and easy to navigate.

I have not visited or viewed this facility

Hospital Punta Pacifica

Boulevard Pacífica y Vía Punta Darién
Ciudad de Panamá

Website: http://www.hospitalpuntapacifica.com/

Webpage with English and Spanish versions, and has been designed for international travellers. However, the overall quality of the website is poor. Information has been poorly laid out and is often mischaracterized. For example, visitors to the site who are seeking information about individual physicians are transferred to a poorly typed resume-style pdf. Physician specialties are mislabeled; with cardiologists listed as surgeons, which may cause confusion for potential patients.

Hospital Punta Pacifica was accredited by Joint Commission International in September of 2011. Hospital Punta Pacifica’s main claim to fame, as it were, is that it is John Hopkins International branded facility.  As such, it is aggressively marketed as a medical tourism destination.

It is located in downtown Panama City, just a kilometer from the CMP (Centro Medico Paitilla).

Victoria 001

Hospital Santo Tomas

Calle 34 Este y Avenida Balboa

Website: http://hospitalsantotomas.gob.pa/

Hospital San Tomas is the oldest public hospital in Panama. Originally started as a small facility for impoverished women in September of 1702, the hospital has grown over the last 300 years to become the largest hospital in the country. The hospital now offers multiple service lines including surgical specialties such as thoracic surgery, plastic surgery and general surgery, among others.  The campus includes separate facilities (Maternity hospital, children’s hospital), a blood bank and Cancer center.

Blue Cross Blue Shield of Panama – one of the international arms of the Blue Cross Blue Shield insurance company, and just one of the many insurances accepted at most Panamanian facilities.

What’s this about free insurance for tourists to Panama?

In one of their more effective (and dramatic) public relations gestures, the Panamanian government widely advertises “Free  medical insurance for the visitors”.  This catastrophic policy covers all visitors during the first thirty days of their stay for accidents and injuries (up to $7000.00) that may occur during a stay in Panama.  Visitors just need to show their passports on arrival to one of the participating medical facilities.

The policy also covers up to $500.00 of dental expenses, and economy class air tickets for return home for family members (in case of a death of a tourist) and repatriation of the deceased.  (This may sound like a grisly benefit but from previous discussions with tourists in various locations – this can be quite costly.)

*Just so you know – it doesn’t cover chronic conditions or pregnancy, so visitors can’t come here and expect to have free care for non-emergent problems (ie, elective hip replacement and the like.)

Anthony Bourdain does Colombia


It’s not his first visit – he’s done several other programs highlighting Colombia, but tonight’s episode on his new CNN show, “Parts Unknown” is definitely his best.  It’s the first time I think  he actually ‘got it’ and was really able to convey a real sense of Colombia to his viewers.

While his previous shows were primarily about food, and local food culture – his episodes on Colombian cuisine were always very wide from the mark..  Sure, he had the names of dishes and such – but he didn’t really bring home the feel of Colombia and it’s people.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qNiF0R1QJpk&feature=share&list=SP6XRrncXkMaVZxpButSnMywWvtINMmjXv

Or that Colombian food isn’t really about intense spices, it’s about the intense and rich flavors that comes from the rich textures of the foods themselves – without overpowering curries or heavy sauces..

Better quality, fresher ingredients and a wide variety make for richer flavors

Better quality, fresher ingredients and a wide variety make for richer flavors

Going home..


After a whirlwind three months that included trips to Chile, Bolivia and different cities in Colombia, I am getting ready to come home in a few days.  As always, leaving Bogotá is bittersweet.  I miss my friends, and my family but I will also miss the city and all of the nice people I’ve met here.

I am posting a map of Colombia, so even though I’ve taken several trips – you can see that I haven’t really explored the country at all. (I’ve posted little push pins on the areas I have visited.)  I excluded Facativa and some of the closer towns since they are really just suburbs of Bogotá, and it would just clutter the map.

Map of Colombia, courtesy of Google Earth

As you can see – I haven’t explored the southern part of Colombia, or the pacific coast at all.  My Atlantic adventures have been confined to Cartagena.  So, I guess this means, I still have a lot of work cut out for me on my next visit(s).

map showing central Colombia

But I hope that readers have enjoyed reading about my travels, the people I’ve met and the things I’ve seen.  Now – I know this is a medical/ surgery blog but since much of the surgery I write about is in this part of the world, I think that including some of my experiences is relevant/ interesting for people who read the blog.  Once I get back home, I’ll post some more articles on medical quality control and standards – and more of my usual dry fare.

Dr. Alberto Martinez, Sports Medicine/ Orthopedic surgeon


Dr. Martinez (right) in the operating room

(Out of respect for patient privacy – I’ve done my best to crop the patient ‘bits’ from the photo.)

Spent some time last week with Dr. Alberto Martinez of Med-Sports Orthopedic Clinic here in Bogotá.  Dr. Martinez specializes in arthroscopic surgery of the hips, knees and shoulders.   As we talked about before, shoulder surgery is its own subspecialty in orthopedics due to the increased complexity of this joint.

We talked a bit about hip arthroscopy,which is still a relatively new procedure in orthopedics and the fact that one two surgeons in Bogota are currently performing this procedure.

Arthroscopy is the orthopedic minimally invasive counterpart to general surgery’s laparoscopy or thoracic surgery’s thoracoscopy.  It involves insertion of a camera and several tools through small (1 cm) incisions in the skin.  Arthroscopy itself has been used in orthopedics for many years but it is just now making inroads in hip procedures.

I’ll be publishing an upcoming article based on my observations over at ColombiaReports.com

For more information

Rath E, Tsvieli O, Levy O. (2012).  Hip arthroscopy: an emerging technique and indications.  Isr Med Assoc J. 2012 Mar;14(3):170-4.

Haviv B, O’Donnell J. (2010). The incidence of total hip arthroplasty after hip arthroscopy in osteoarthritic patients.  Sports Med Arthrosc Rehabil Ther Technol. 2010 Jul 29;2:18

The authors found that 16% of patients in their study eventually required hip replacement after hip arthroscopy during seven years follow-up.

Nord RM, Meislin RJ. (2010).  Hip arthroscopy in adults.  Bull NYU Hosp Jt Dis. 2010;68(2):97-102. Review.

Afternoon at the finca, and a day at the market


We spent Saturday exploring Lerida and cruising around.

Ready for adventure

We stopped at several roadside stops to buy some local fruit before heading off to La Gaviota, a local finca owned by a Brazilian woman.

buying papayas

We bought some delicious sugar mangos, along with some sweet papayas and mandarins.

enjoying sugar mangos

La Gaviota, a finca in Tolima

Now, there are two kinds of fincas in Colombia; working fincas and pure vacation fincas.  A working finca is usually a farm or an orchard – often owned by a city resident but managed locally.  This allows people who live and work in Bogota to have a get-away place that also brings in income.

one of the lakes at La Gaviota

Some of these fincas have been in peoples’ families for generations and produce much of the fruit and livestock products (dairy, meat etc) that are sold in Colombia.

Other fincas are pure recreational homes, and as such, are primarily owned by wealthier Colombians though this is not always the case.  Fincas vary from modest cabin style affairs to elaborate, ornate mansions with swimming pools, tennis courts and private fully stocked ponds.  Since most working people can’t stay at their finca very often, many owners rent out their fincas part-time.  Such was the case with the lovely La Gaviota.

the pool, surrounded by fruit trees

The entire property has been planted with fruits and trees native to Brazil and the staff encourages visitors to sample the many exotic varieties.

Yaca, a fruit native to Brazil

There is a swimming pool, and several lakes stocked with fish.  There is also a hotel, and a restaurant, where they will prepare your fresh catch.  Like many of the numerous fincas that dot the landscape here, they welcome travelers and offer services at reasonable rates.  So we spent the sunny afternoon at the pool.

The next day, we went to the market in Lerida.   We bought some more ‘tipica’ or traditional Tolidense food called lechona from a very nice young man who helps his grandmother.

young man selling lechona

While I vary from vegetarianism to veganism in the states, I never hesitate to try another delicious typical dish when I am traveling – and it was marvelous; warm, savory and flavorful.

There are several variations of lechona, which is stuffed pork but the Tolidense version uses a base of garbanzo beans for the stuffing and comes with a sweet-flavored bread stuffing called insulso on the side.

lechona

The grandmother, also invited us to come to her house where she had other tolidense specialities for sale, including tolidense tamales.

with grandmother

There were other vendors selling panela which is popular sugar product here in Colombia, (and other latin American countries.)  It’s a staple, a form of unrefined sugar produced at the local sugar cane factories in the region.  (I particularly like panela in my coffee and tea.)

panela

We met and purchased several tamales from another vendor in the market, a very nice woman who was very happy to pose for the camera.  I am ashamed to say that I forgot to write her name in my little notebook because my hands were full with all of our great purchases.

homemade tamales

in Lerida


in the mountains on the way to Tolima

Most Americans have limited exposure to Colombia, and Colombian life.  Other than media reports about drugs and violence, the majority of people’s opinions about the country have been formed by one quintessential little film of the mid-80’s…

“Romancing the Stone” – yeah, that’s right – the silly little romantic comedy with Kathleen Turner and Michael Douglas.  “Is this the bus to Cartagena?” is a line I’ve heard many, many times from people asking questions about my experiences here.

In general, like most things, Colombia is nothing like the movies.  Especially this one, since it was filmed in Veracruz, Mexico.

just outside Lerida at Sunset

But Lerida is that Colombia – the hot, humid, tropical Colombia that people think of after watching that movie.  It isn’t jungle-like here, of course,(that’s further south) but it’s an ancient city with stone buildings and some cobblestone streets interspersed among newer construction; but Lerida has the unrelenting heat and steaminess that people generally picture (and fail to find in Bogota.)  My guide tells me that the city wasn’t quite so hot – until most of the trees were removed when the streets were paved.  It makes sense since the neighboring cities (with thick tree-lined streets) are noticeably cooler.

It’s an interesting city – and more than just miles away from Bogotá – more like decades.  Life is a bit more traditional here, but that may be just the heat, and the ancient appearance of much of the buildings contributing to that perception.  Lerida was first ‘discovered’ in 1538 by Spanish conquistador Sebastián de Belalcazar who was amazed by the richness of the land, but it wasn’t officially ‘founded’ until 1777, which actually makes it technically one of the younger towns.  But as you wander the town, you see that people are still living in many of the original buildings – updated and modernized, of course.  But the original architecture with high ceiling and spacious rooms offers the advantages of cooler temperatures despite relentless sun.

As a mentioned in a previous post about Cali – motorcycles are the preferred method of travel in the warmer climes; relatively inexpensive, and good on gas – you see motorcycles just about everywhere you look; with entire families on bikes.

family on motorcycle in Lerida

Women in high heels, babies pressed between bodies, toddlers riding up front, even women riding ‘side-saddle’.

Coming from a society where motorcycles are used more as a statement than a viable mode of transportation; it takes a minute to adjust to the scene of so many bikes – it’s not a convention, they aren’t ‘bikers’, it’s just another day of running errands and going to work.

line of motorcycles

For more posts about my visits to Medellin, click here.