A Spokane woman and her family say she was held hostage in a Mexican hospital this week after her lung was punctured while on vacation in Cabo San Lucas.
Brandi Gallagher said the hospital, Saint Luke’s Medical Center, confined her in a room while extorting her family for tens of thousands of dollars. The 34-year-old, who was released from a different hospital in the city Thursday morning, described the ordeal as “something out of a horror film.”
Saint Luke’s is one of four Los Cabos hospitals that the U.S. Consulate in Tijuana blacklisted last year following “numerous complaints” about sky-high medical bills and other predatory business practices.
Gallagher said her problems went far beyond a billing dispute. She said the hospital demanded payment upfront and initially provided decent treatment, but then left her in a bed without food, water, pain medication or restroom visits.
The hospital also lied to her parents in Vancouver, Washington, that she was unconscious and unable to speak with them – and asked them for more credit card information, she said.
In a phone call Thursday, the hospital’s director of operations, Mario Trejo, disputed the family’s account and said they’re “interpreting the situation wrong.” He also said there were medical reasons for denying her food and water at different points in her stay.
Trejo said he didn’t know precisely how much Saint Luke’s had charged for Gallagher’s treatment, but he defended the hospital’s billing practices, saying the private business could not risk letting tourists abscond without paying for care.
“We don’t give medical care for free,” he said.
Photo op gone wrong
Gallagher, a mother of three who works in human resources and at a bar in Spokane, said her “worst nightmare” began Sunday evening, the second day of what was supposed to be a five-day vacation.
She and two of her girlfriends were perusing a gift shop in downtown Cabo San Lucas, and she climbed onto a raised platform, about 4 to 5 feet tall, to get photos between two life-size Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) figures.
When she tried to step down, she fell sideways into a metal sculpture of a spiky agave plant, impaling herself on one of the sword-like leaves.
“I landed kind of weird and it went up diagonally,” Gallagher said, describing how the metal spike pierced her back, right around her bra strap, and bored more than an inch into her right lung.
One of Gallagher’s friends lifted her off the spike, and then fainted at the sight of the blood, receiving a minor head injury of her own, Gallagher said.
Locals inside the store told the women to hail a taxi, but Gallagher’s instinct was to call for an ambulance. “In the U.S., that’s just what you do,” she said.
Gallagher was loaded into one ambulance and her friend into another. Saint Luke’s was only 2 1/2 miles from the gift shop, but the ride lasted around 45 minutes, Gallagher said. She said she believes the paramedics were driving around aimlessly, “seeing which hospital would pay them the most.”
When she arrived, hospital staff demanded that Gallagher pay upfront for treatment, she said.
“As soon as I got in the door, they wanted my credit card,” she said. “They did not want pesos. They did not want insurance. They wanted American cash, and they wanted it now.”
Gallagher frantically handed over her credit card, thinking she would resolve any payment issues after her life was saved.
She said the hospital would not accept her Obamacare plan when she was admitted, but Trejo, the hospital administrator, claimed she didn’t present proof of insurance until she had been at the hospital for 12 hours.
“People come in with a lot of attitude, different emotions,” he said, “and at the end of the day you’ve still got to deal with the financial part.”
Trejo said Saint Luke’s treats 20 to 30 new patients each day, about a third of whom are tourists. He said Americans, in particular, tend to raise disputes about their medical bills and often come in without traveler’s insurance.
“I’ve never had one problem with Canadians,” he said.
Gallagher also disputed Trejo’s assertion that she was drunk at the time of her accident.
“I was sober, shopping for gifts for my children in a gift shop,” she said.
Gallagher said the nurses at Saint Luke’s were careful and attentive, and a surgeon who contracts with the hospital inserted a ventilation tube in her chest.
“The staff was great, let’s be clear there,” she said.
But as soon as she was in stable condition, Gallagher said, a woman entered her room to inform her that her credit card had been declined.
“I asked her what the bill was and she said, ‘That’s not for you to worry about,’” Gallagher said.
She would later learn that the hospital tried to charge her $25,000.
By that time, on Monday, her boyfriend Brian Perks had flown to Mexico. Eager to get her treatment, he handed over his own credit card. He would later learn it was swiped 42 times.
“They told Brian to sell his car and give them the money, to mortgage his house,” said Gallagher’s mother, Debi.
The hospital demanded more and more money, and at one point the total reached $55,000, Debi Gallagher said.
Brandi Gallagher said she stopped receiving treatment “the moment that Brian said I was switching hospitals.”
Debi Gallagher said hospital higher-ups stopped letting anyone into her daughter’s room – including nurses bringing pain pills, U.S. Consulate officials and Mexican authorities.
“This administrator trapped her in her room and wouldn’t let anyone see her,” she said. “He locked the door and stood outside the door and shooed people away.”
Gallagher was finally transferred to another hospital in Cabo San Lucas on Tuesday, but even that process turned out to be a scam, she said.
“I thought the ambulance I was getting into was from the new hospital,” she said.
But the ambulance turned out to be contracted with Saint Luke’s, and while en route, it stopped for about an hour while the hospital demanded another $10,000, she said.
Desperate, the family paid up. Between the two hospitals, and after settling some disputes, Gallagher said, the total of all the bills is more than $33,000.
Road to recovery
Shortly before the U.S. Consulate issued its warning to American citizens about Saint Luke’s in spring 2016, Mexico’s consumer protection agency, Profeco, ordered the hospital to cease operations and stop admitting new patients.
Trejo, however, said that was a mere contract dispute and the hospital’s operations were not disrupted.
Finally free of Saint Luke’s on Tuesday, Gallagher received additional treatment at Blue Net – another hospital that was ostensibly sanctioned by Profeco in August.
Debi Gallagher described BlueNet’s services as “fantastic” and said the hospital interviewed Brandi for a promotional video.
Because her lung remains in fragile condition, Brandi Gallagher won’t be able to fly home for at least a week. She said she’s talking to her children daily via Facetime, letting them know that “Mommy’s all right.”
This is not the first time a resident of the Inland Northwest has claimed to be victimized by a Mexican hospital. In May, a 70-year-old Coeur d’Alene woman said she was held captive for more than a week at a facility in Nuevo Vallarta after she suffered complications of diabetes.
Debi Gallagher is asking for help with Brandi’s medical bills on GoFundMe.com. As of Thursday evening, the campaign had raised $3,245 toward a $10,000 goal.
“The message that we want to get out is, when you go on vacation, ask the locals and know your surroundings and know where to go in an emergency,” she said.
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.