“Our health is a personal issue, and it really does not need to be advertised,” says Anna Love, founder and director of Clinic'estetica, an aesthetic medical clinic in Tijuana, Mexico, that specializes in facial fillers for those with lipo. “If we look in the mirror and see illness, we feel ill. If we look in the mirror and see a healthy countenance, we feel better,” she adds.
Matt Sharp, 52, can speak to this issue. Diagnosed in 1988, Sharp first noticed the gaunt appearance of his face and extensive buildup of fat around his stomach in 1996. “It was devastating for me,” he told POZ. “[People like me] were seemingly healthy, but we had this deformity, for lack of a better word.” Sharp knew of several temporary reconstructive procedures such as fat grafting, collagen injections and Sculptra, one of two FDA-approved treatments in the United States for those living with HIV. But Sharp wanted something long-term. So in 2004, he traveled to Love’s clinic and received polyalkylimide, a permanent water-based gel filler not available in the United States. Almost five years later, Sharp is still pleased with the results.
With the advancements being made in facial fillers, POZ’s own David Capogna also wanted to try a nonsurgical permanent solution instead of Sculptra. “I spent a lot of money [for Sculptra], and now there’s nothing to show for it,” Capogna says of the injections that he received every six months. Diagnosed in 1993, Capogna has dealt with lipo for more than six years; it caused him to wear padded underwear due to the extreme loss of fat in his buttocks. He believes that the condition was brought on from liver disease and an ARV medication that has since been discontinued.
This past December, Capogna flew from Manhattan to San Diego and then took a 45-minute car ride to The Center of Reconstructive & Cosmetic Dermatology in Tijuana. Ironically, his trip lasted about six hours, while the procedure to inject PMMA (polymethylmethacrylate) only lasted two. “It was worth it to me because before I felt like a monster,” he says. “I felt people noticed it when they looked at the side of my face and they wondered, ‘What’s going on with him?’ For me, getting the procedure was a big improvement.”
Given the gloomy U.S. economy and the fact that many people with HIV and lipo cannot jet-set to foreign lands and spend money to look better, medical tourism may seem more like a group outing for The Real Housewives of Orange County than a reality for the average HIV-positive individual.
Love doesn’t see it that way. She believes medical tourism is not just for the rich or the vain. “It’s about looking in the mirror and seeing the real you, not the new you living with the virus.” Many who pursue corrective procedures for lipodystrophy in other countries are doing it to make themselves feel better. After all, as Love sums it up, “It’s not about how others see [us], it’s how we see ourselves.”