Cosmetic surgery shows the ugly face of Lebanon

Sunday 02/07/2017
A cosmetic surgeon can perform about 20 surgeries a week.

Other than the occasional world record claim for having produced the biggest bowl of hummus or the largest shawarma sandwich, Lebanon typically has little to brag about. However, among the pillars of Lebanon’s somewhat modest economy are its banking and service sectors, which have always reached beyond the local market to the wider Arab region.

Among these services is the medical tourism industry, whose reputation for excellence has been fuelled by Lebanon’s first-rate medical schools and the long-standing tradition of Western expertise gained by Lebanese doctors during years spent honing their craft abroad.

However, Lebanon’s reputation for medical excellence was recently shattered by the case of Farah Kassab, a 33-year-old Iraqi national who died while undergo­ing a liposuction operation in one of Lebanon’s pre-eminent plastic surgery centres.

The surgeon and owner of the clinic in question, Dr Nader Saab, a self-proclaimed authority on plastic surgery in both Lebanon and the region, was widely regarded — and not always positively — for his ambitious and sometimes intrusive marketing campaigns, which some said had undermined the authority of the medical profession.

Nevertheless, the death of Kassab has drawn attention to not just Saab’s controversial marketing techniques but to a system of potential corruption that risks Lebanon’s position as a leading destination for medical tourism, as well as endangering more innocent lives by incompe­tent medical professionals and poorly enforced safety standards.

While all medical procedures carry an inherent risk, reports into Kassab’s death point to a propensity for undue haste on the part of her surgeon and an intensive care unit ill-equipped to cope with accidents that haste can produce. While the latter might not be solely responsible for Kassab’s death, the fact that Saab attempted to move Kassab to a better-equipped emergency clinic is enough for many to suggest some degree of culpabil­ity.

While Lebanon may be a trailblazer in medical tourism within the Arab region, it is certainly not alone. Many countries, including Jordan, are trying to overtake it, a task made easier as a result of Kassab’s death.

Turkey, which ranked sixth in the field of medical tourism, receives more than 152,000 visitors every year, spending more than $1 billion on medical procedures ranging from hair transplants to plastic surgery.

Given the abysmal track record of success in medical malpractice cases, as well as the pressures exerted on the judiciary system to downplay anything that may undermine a cornerstone of the Lebanese economy, Saab might still survive this storm and return to his trade.

A month into the incident, the issue is still pending a judicial and medical investigation to determine whether Saab was negligent or if Kassab’s death was the result of health complica­tions. Saab has mustered his media and political network and counterattacked to restore his image. He obtained a temporary judicial order preventing the Lebanese media from investigat­ing his alleged misconduct, further validating suspicions of corruption and flaws in the Lebanese system.

Kassab’s case came to light because she was an Iraqi national from a rich family. This cannot be said about poor souls who lose their lives in operation rooms or at emergency rooms deemed to be of insufficient interest by the media.

In all cases the death of Kassab and the face of Nader Saab plastered on billboards and magazines will remain a harsh reminder of Lebanon’s true ugly face, one no plastic surgery can repair.