PHOENIX - A warning is coming down from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) after a dozen fungal meningitis deaths were tied to clinics in Mexico where Americans have been getting cosmetic procedures.
The CDC says there are almost another dozen confirmed ongoing cases.
The patients were in for different surgeries, but all received epidural anesthesia. A woman from Phoenix survived – but barely.
‘He said it was normal’
Alondra Lomas is a 27-year-old mom of two.
After her second C-section, she wanted what's known in the plastic surgery world as a "mommy makeover."
As a medical assistant in Phoenix, she did some research and found a doctor in Mexico with results she liked.
She flew out of Sky Harbor airport for a Brazilian butt lift and liposuction but got significantly more than she bargained for.
Months later, Alondra was diagnosed with fungal meningitis. It's a rare infection in the brain and spinal cord that's extremely difficult to cure.
"March 13 was the day I had my surgery. On March 31, I felt my first symptoms of a headache and spinal pain. When I would walk, it would hurt my spine. I tried to contact the doctor back in Mexico without getting an answer, so I contacted the coordinator. She then said that she was able to reach out to the doctor and that he said it was normal," Alondra said.
Days of feeling normal were followed by days of feeling off.
"It was May 5 when I finally felt something is wrong. It started with the chills, mind you, in May. It's already hot here in Arizona. I had my leggings, my sweater on, my socks, and I'm like, what is going on? Something's not right," she said.
Alondra was in a Facebook group with other women getting procedures done at the same clinic in Mexico. While she was getting sicker, she came to the frightening realization that she wasn't alone.
"So when I saw that hey, this girl was sick, let me reach out to her and ask her, like, what symptoms, you know. And so, you know, when the doctor told me it's meningitis, I reached out back to her and I told her, well, I might have what you have," she said.
After suffering from hallucinations, weakness in her spine and down her legs, headaches and nausea, an MRI at St Joseph's Hospital in midtown Phoenix, showed signs of meningitis.
'It's not our fault'
All of a sudden, some of the other women started dying.
"It's kind of hard, you know, being in a hospital and all you have is your phone and you're seeing, whoa, another one passed away. Another one? Oh my God, she's sick like that. Is that going to happen to me?" Alondra thought.
The CDC put out a warning for anyone who had procedures under epidural anesthesia at two clinics between Jan. 1 to May 13 of this year is at risk for fungal meningitis. River Side Surgical Center and Clinica K-3 in Matamoros, Mexico.
Alondra says she reached out to her surgeon in Mexico and was kicked out of his Facebook group for patients.
"I'm like, hey, I'm sick. Is there any response that you're going to give us? Is there anything you're going to say about us? Do you know anything about it? Then I reached out to his Instagram page that he has and all I got back was, 'It's not our fault,'" she said.
Aldondra's medical team saves her life
Ten confirmed cases, nine suspected cases, 14 probable cases and 12 deaths.
Alondra's infectious disease doctor at St Joseph's Hospital needed to figure out how to keep her alive.
"It would be the most serious, I would say, of anything I've seen," said Dr. Tatyana Shekhel, infectious disease specialist at St Joseph's Hospital.
Dr. Shekhel says patients with bacterial meningitis respond to antibiotic treatment within 48 hours. But fungal meningitis is a microscopic organism resistant to almost everything.
"This kind of fungus is something that has to be introduced physically into the spinal fluid. It won't just develop spontaneously. So, of course, we didn't know, and we still don't 100% know what is the fungus that she has because not nothing ever grew out. We eventually ended up doing some indirect testing on the spinal fluid that basically suggested that it was in fact fungal," Dr. Shekhel said.
This isn't the first time a U.S. citizen has traveled abroad for a cosmetic medical procedure, nor is it the first time they've come back with an infectious disease.
"Obviously I wasn't there, and I don't know, but it's plausible that the anesthetic that was injected had contamination with this organism. So it's an organism. It's a soil fungus. So you don't know it's in the environment. And, you know, to get inside your body, you basically have to inject it. And that's the only way you can get it, get it inside there. It somehow got into her through the procedure, through the equipment, through what we think was a contaminated, tainted anesthetic," Dr. Shekhel said.
Alondra's doctors in Phoenix couldn't be sure of what caused it, but they were certain if the antifungal medications didn't start working, and fast, there wouldn't be a patient left to treat.
"There was some improvement initially, and we thought, well, maybe we kind of have a hold on this, and we're going in the right direction. And then there was a sudden worsening, and I was very, very scared, very nervous for her that if we don't do something immediately different, then she's going to die," Dr. Shekhel said.
She says the infectious disease department at St. Joseph's Hospital has experience with a certain type of fungus that doctors in most regions wouldn't be familiar with.
In this case, it worked in their favor.
"We're in a unique position where we have this injectable antifungal, which can go straight into the central nervous system. Nowhere else in the country can do that. We were able to. I think that's what saved her life," the doctor said.
Alondra and Dr. Tatyana Shekhel
Alondra isn't in the clear completely, but she is finally on the road to recovery.
"I do have a little bit of that survivor's guilt. But I'll get over it. I know it's for a reason, for a purpose," Alondra said.
While she isn't opposed to plastic surgery, that's the last time she plans to go under the knife.
"It's weird because I'm satisfied. I want to be just me. Now that I look at myself with what I went through, it's kind of like, for what? for what?" she said.
For more information on the CDC's warning related to this story, click here.
FOX 10 reached out to the clinic for a statement and did not get a response back.