‘My boy was killed by a tummy tuck’

He planned to come home a new man.

Grace’s son thought surgery overseas would change his life.

Here, Grace, 58, tells the story in her own words.

You look fantastic my lovely,’ I smiled at my son Leigh, then 28. Enjoying a birthday party, he looked so handsome.

Two years younger than his brother Adam, Leigh was always shy. Bullied in high school for gaining weight, he’d suffered another blow in his early 20s when I was treated for cancer. Leigh juggled his job as a chef with caring for me. When I recovered, Leigh struggled to find his niche in life.

Recently, though, he’d joined the army. He’d wanted comradeship, but another bonus was his weight fell off. ‘Doesn’t he look well?’ I said to my hubby, Harvey, 67. Finally, things were looking up. Then, one night he called me upset. ‘I’m being bullied Mum,’ he told me, saying people were commenting on his loose skin.

Finally things were looking up for Leigh
Finally things were looking up for Leigh (Credit: Supplied)
Leigh, me and Adam
Leigh, me and Adam (Credit: Supplied)

After nine months, he left the army but he’d become fixated on his appearance and slipped into a dark depression.

After having loose skin removed from his chest by a surgeon in Melbourne, he was keen for more surgery. But he couldn’t afford it. Although I tried to boost his confidence, I knew he felt down. When Adam’s son Zion was born, Leigh adored being an uncle.‘I’d like to meet someone and start a family,’ he said.

Leigh loved being an uncle to Zion
Leigh loved being an uncle to Zion (Credit: Supplied)

Then, in early 2014, he decided to get cosmetic surgery in Malaysia. ‘It’s cheaper and I’ll get a holiday too,’ he beamed. The website showed stunning skylines and beautiful hotel suites. I still felt uneasy, but Leigh pinned his hopes of happiness on his ‘fresh start’.‘Are you sure about this?’ I asked, driving him to the airport. ‘We can turn back.’ ‘I could never afford it here,’ he said, determined.

Arriving in Malaysia, Leigh went under the knife on April 17 last year. After a few anxious days, Leigh finally called.‘I’m not great,’ he told me, sounding in pain. As we talked, I realised Leigh had kept quiet about the extent of his surgery. I knew he had planned to tighten up his tummy and a few other areas, but in his first procedure he had liposuction, a 360-degree tummy tuck, as well as a chest and thigh lift.

Adam and Leigh
My handsome sons, Adam and Leigh (Credit: Supplied)

Five days later, he had surgery on his neck, lips and eyelids. He planned to surprise everyone when he came home as a new man. At $35,000, it was a third the cost of the surgery here.  The day after his second operation, he was discharged from the clinic to a hotel. I wished he was in hospital.

A few days later, he emailed a photo of his swollen legs and feet. Is that normal? I thought. His oozing wounds had soaked the bedsheets, staining them with blood. He said he’d crawled across his hotel room in agony to let his carer in. Worse, some of his wounds were opening up and had to be re-stitched at the clinic. My heartbeat has been beating rapidly, like crazy, he emailed.

On May 6, he was re-admitted to the clinic after fainting. Then, two days before he was due to fly home on May 10, he blacked out and his chest was tight. They just say ‘I’ve never seen your kind of case before’, he wrote, adding he was feeling scared. To my surprise, Leigh’s surgeon declared him fit to fly. ‘You don’t look good, Leigh,’ I said, hiding my panic as he came off the plane in a wheelchair. ‘I’ve never been in pain like this,’ he said quietly. He wished he’d never gone.

Exhausted, he just wanted his own bed. ‘We can go to hospital tomorrow,’ he said. In our bathroom, I gasped in horror as I dressed Leigh’s gaping wounds. I can see inside him, I realised, feeling faint. They smelled bad, too. I gave my boy soup and put him to bed, glad he’d get help in the morning.

Then, at 6.15am the next day, a thump jolted me awake. Leigh’s fallen, I realised, racing to him. He was slumped across his bed, grasping his chest. ‘I can’t breathe Mum,’ he rasped.

I called for an ambulance but he suddenly convulsed and fell to the floor. An ambo arrived and gave chest compressions for 40 minutes, but my beautiful son was gone at just 31. I cuddled up to him. ‘I love you,’ I whispered, trying to will him back to me. All my boy wanted was to be happy with himself. How could it have ended like this?

An autopsy revealed Leigh died after a blood clot, probably from his calf, moved to his lungs. I miss him every day and kiss his photos. Coroner Caitlin English investigated his death. Her report, published in December, explained there were no ‘international standards’ for cosmetic surgery and noted fears that Australians underestimated the risks of medical tourism.

Ms English asked for warnings to be issued more widely on how overseas medical care can differ. Nothing can bring my precious Leigh back, but I don’t want anyone else to go through this nightmare. Please learn from my son and do your research thoroughly. Having the perfect body is not worth risking your life for.

Read more in this week’s issue of that’s life!

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