The Tijuana Option
Posted by Dr. Santiago Hernandez, M.D., June 14, 2017
There may come a time when some of us may have to experience the pain of accompanying a family member, close friend or a loved one through the ordeal of a disease that may be deemed terminal. We often go through the same emotional stages as the person who is at the end of their journey here on earth.
“The five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance are a part of the framework that makes up our learning to live with the one we lost. They are tools to help us frame and identify what we may be feeling.”
It can be during one of these stages that we try to “buy” our loved ones more time or find that miraculous cure that will end our loved one’s suffering or perhaps be the cure we are so desperate to find. As a physician who provides care to a population of expats from the U.S. and Canada, the majority of whom are about my parents’ age (65 and older), I have treated many who have had to fight these battles, including cancer. That includes my own parents.
As those of you who follow my blog postings know, I have written previously about my mother’s fight with breast cancer and how she received excellent care in the Mexican Public Healthcare system in Guadalajara. Last year, her oncologist told her that she was in remission and was free to return to Chicago. Well, she recently returned to Chicago only to be hospitalized again and learned she had developed tumors in her liver. They probably had metastasized from her breast cancer.
I believe that during one of these stages of accepting my mother’s recurrence of what is now a stage 4 cancer and ultimately the end of her journey on this earth, members of my family, with the best of intentions, did what is now a common practice. They searched Google for an answer, a cure. They believed that the “conventional” allopathic medical therapy she underwent had not provided the cure we all had hoped for so they looked up “alternative” care clinics, based in Tijuana that seemed to offer hope for a cure of my mother’s cancer.
This hope came with a price tag that started at $30,000 USD at some clinics, while at others it was as much as $45,000 USD. These medical expenses would be due upon admission. Knowing this would wipe out their lives savings and the loss of their property, but also being offered hope, my parents needed some clarity in making the important decisions regarding my mother’s care.
I decided to broaden my horizons and after speaking to two of my patients, Sheryl and Dan Malin who had undergone treatment for their respective cancers in Tijuana and who had positive experiences, I decided to fly to Tijuana and do my own research, which I believed would provide more clarity for all concerned, especially for my mother.
I went to Tijuana on May 31, set on visiting 3-4 clinics, starting with the one whose team had successfully provided care to my patients, Baja Medgate. They had a chauffeur pick me up at the airport and drive me to their small clinic overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
The Baja Medgate practice was founded and is headed by Jennifer Miele, a cancer survivor herself, who teams with physicians who work at another hospital. I found Jennifer to be a person with whom I share many of the same principles in which I believe when it comes to providing care for patients. This was especially true regarding the most difficult, turbulent and emotional times in patients’ lives and that of their families.
I am glad to say that Baja Medgate was the first clinic I visited, because it was the most personable, transparent and offered a soothing atmosphere for the patients receiving care. In addition, the staff was upbeat and positive. I was allowed to speak with the doctors, who shared their experiences and shared medical literature from reputable medical journals about the various approaches that they use to treat a patient with cancer. I was also allowed to speak freely with the patients there who were more than forthcoming about their experiences and about how glad they were that they chose to come to Baja Medgate.
My final meeting was with Jennifer. It was a very pleasant and open interview. She offered her assistance in helping me get any answers that I may have needed and she was quite open about the fact that Baja Medgate not only used “alternative” medicine but, when merited, even surgery was an option for some patients. There was no “cookie-cutter” therapy for all who came to her for help. She mentioned that she and the rest of her team evaluated the case for each prospective patient who sought her help. She offered guidance and information as well as a list or resources to those who could not come to Baja Medgate. The “sales pitch” I expected, never materialized. Instead she offered the services of her staff to show me the other hospitals and clinics. She gave me a brief history of the “alternative” cancer care clinics in Tijuana, her experiences and how some patients were better suited for care at one of the other clinics.
I’d like to think that it was poor planning on my part but the rest of my experiences were not as transparent and positive as my experience with Baja Medgate. I next went to the hospital Hope4Cancer accompanied by the chauffeur that Jennifer allowed to be my personal guide the rest of the afternoon. I walked in to Hope4Cancer but was not allowed to speak with any of the administration, staff and was told that a tour of the facilities had to be coordinated from their office in Las Vegas.
I presented myself as a physician and stated I had an interest in bringing a patient to their hospital for treatment but was only given the business card and contact information of the people whom I was supposed to contact prior to any tour and only they could give me information. I asked for a flier or some printed information from the guard/receptionist but was told they had none on hand to give me.
This was a pretty big disappointment because this was the hospital that some members in my family were sold on for my mother’s care. I understand issues related to patient privacy but I really thought, especially because the treatment came with such a huge price tag, they’d roll out the red carpet for me and at least give me their “sales pitch” while showing me their facilities. No dice.
We thanked the people at the reception desk for their time and proceeded to go to Hospital Angeles de Tijuana which is part of the well-known Angeles hospitals group throughout Mexico. Some of the staff who now are part of Baja Medgate used to work at this hospital’s Functional Medicine Dept. which handles the alternative medical therapies for their cancer patients. I was lucky to meet Dr. Ariel Perez, director of the Department of Functional Medicine. Again, I presented myself as a physician and director of my own clinic and had an interest in bringing a patient with stage 4 breast cancer to receive treatment under his care.
At this point some of you may be asking themselves what is “functional medicine?” It is a phrase I only came across when people posted on the local Lake Chapala Web Boards asking if there was anybody who was “certified” or practicing “functional medicine” in the Lakeside area or in Guadalajara.
If you do a Google search, you’ll come across the definition as “medical practice or treatments that focus on optimal functioning of the body and its organs, usually involving systems of holistic or alternative medicine.
“You don’t have to have a disease to benefit from functional medicine”
The definition in Wikipedia is “a form of alternative medicine which proponents say focuses on interactions between the environment and the gastrointestinal, endocrine, and immune systems while opponents point out that it is a “collection of totally nonsensical gobbledygook”. Practitioners develop individual treatment plans for people they treat. Functional medicine encompasses a number of unproven and disproven methods and treatments,. It has also been criticized for being pseudoscientific.”
Since I was on a research mission, I considered myself to be quite fortunate to personally meet the Director of Functional Medicine of a hospital that is partof reputable group of hospitals which I have worked at in Guadalajara. Dr. Perez seemed a bit guarded and was not as forthcoming with the information I was seeking. He did mention that he used many of the same procedures that the Baja Medgate group used, such as injecting NK(natural killer) cells directly into tumors and other techniques like hyperthermia etc. He did mention that his program was an inpatient program, much like the Hope For Cancer program. He did not give me any details or offer a guided tour of the department or hospital facilities. I asked him about costs and he simply stated that “he did not know what the costs were” and that I should contact their office in San Diego, Ca. He was simply the Director of the department, he provided care to patients and simply collected a paycheck but he knew nothing about costs etc.
When I asked about the program’s success rate he also stated he did not have that kind of information but could contact me at later date with that information. I also asked him for an informational pamphlet or packet of printed material, which is customary for most hospital departments. Again, he said that they had none on hand and I could find the answers to my questions on their website. Interestingly enough there is a chart with statistics on their website that doesn’t seem that hard to memorize:
I gave him my card and he wrote his name on the back of another physician’s card and gave it to me. We shook hands and I thanked him for his time and left. The chauffeur was quiet at this point. He had been quite cheerful since he picked me up at the airport at 8:00 am until we hit our first dead end at HOPE FOR CANCER. I’d like to believe that because some of the BAJA MEDGATE team used to be part of the ANGELES HOSPITAL team, I might have been more warmly received. I’d like to think that we were both disappointed.
It was about 4:00 pm and I only had time for a quick dinner before I headed to the airport to catch my flight back to Guadalajara. I thanked my guide and I sent Jennifer a quick message also thanking her for her time and her chauffeur’s time. He was a really kind and a genuine person who really believed in Jennifer and the mission of Baja Medgate. He accepted nothing more than a hand shake and a heartfelt “thank you” for his time and guidance.
I now have a firsthand knowledge of what the Tijuana Option would entail if we went this route for my mother’s fight with cancer. Prior to traveling to Tijuana to research this option, I had many mixed feelings and was even angry that I accepted spending my money and time away from my own patients in hopes of finding the cure for what was slowly and painstakingly stealing my mother. I had so much to contemplate and weigh on that flight back home.
Based on my experience and the limited amount of time that I had to research the Tijuana Option, I will state again, that I was most comfortable with the manner and transparency as well as the genuine warmth and empathy that was palpable from Jennifer, the doctors and staff at Baja Medgate. I know understand why my patients, Dan and Sheryl Malin chose to follow Jennifer to the practice she founded. It is not to say that the other hospitals and programs don’t have their own merits but I think that I’ve clearly stated why I wouldn’t chose them if it came down to going this route.
Below are some links to the websites of the places I was able to research first hand. I hope you find the information helpful or if you ever need some clarity as to choosing a program that may be right for you or a loved one, then I hope my search as a doctor and a son who was researching all the options in hopes of restoring his mother’s health will help you.
BAJA MEDGATE: https://www.bajamedgate.com/ and here is a link to a radio show they did on Voice America. This will give you a bit more information about them.
HOSPITAL ANGELS DE TIJUANA: Dr. Ariel Perez – http://www.angeleshealth.com/doctors/dr-ariel-perez-2
And their Cancer treatment program/Functional Oncology – http://www.angeleshealth.com/type/medical-treatment-functional-oncology
Hope 4 Cancer – http://www.hope4cancer.com
Institute for Functional Medicine –