Extreme Vacation: Surgery Safari

(CBS) Even under ordinary circumstances, an African safari is the journey of a lifetime. But Colleen Hiltbrunner, 53, has a special reason to hope her African adventure will transform her life forever.

“The opportunity to see the animals in their natural habitat. To go where man originated, and at the same time, get the plastic surgery I need at a bargain rate is just fantastic,” says Hiltbrunner.

It’s the package deal of her dreams. Call it an “extreme” vacation, but as Correspondent Troy Roberts reports, Hiltbrunner is about to combine a safari with a nip-and-tuck –- 10,000 miles away from her home in Colorado Springs.

Hiltbrunner admits that she’s a bit apprehensive. “I have a lot of relatives who think I’m crazy to be doing this,” she says. “They say, ‘What happens, you’re over there at a long distance. You know, what if something goes wrong or

It all started with a search on the Internet. Her husband Don admits that at first, the idea sounded a little strange.

However, for Hiltbrunner, this trip is much more than a matter of vanity. It’s a chance to finally leave behind years of health problems – and a dramatic weight gain of 100 pounds.

“I was pretty much a social hermit,” says Hiltbrunner. “I didn’t go to social functions with my husband, and there were occasions for my son that I missed because I felt my appearance would be embarrassing. I was not a happy person.”

Now, she’s hoping to shed some extra skin – and has signed up for an eye lift, a facelift, an armlift, and the same procedure for her thighs.

It’s been two years since Hiltbrunner first e-mailed “Surgeon and Safari,” a South African based company that promotes medical tourism.

But the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery warns that it’s difficult to check the credentials of foreign doctors. Plus, follow-up care could also be problematic.

How can Hiltbrunner be confident that her surgeon will be competent enough to perform this type of surgery? “I think that I have done the research,” says Hiltbrunner. “I would say with anyone, any surgery is a little bit of a leap of faith.”

So now, with enough money put aside after refinancing their home, Colleen and Don Hiltbrunner embark on the honeymoon they never had.

“What she’s seeking and what we’re all hoping the outcome would be, would be her true happiness, is what we’re hoping,” says Don Hiltbrunner.

At the Johannesburg airport, the Hiltbrunners are met by Surgeon and Safari founder Lorraine Melvill, and escorted to their five-star hotel.

This five-year-old company has evolved into a multi-million dollar business that’s a boon to the struggling South African economy. And while we’ve all heard horror stories about Americans undergoing cheap plastic surgery abroad, Melvill insists her surgeons are a bargain only because of her country’s weak currency.

“I think the quality of our medical profession is far superior,” says Melvill. “I think we have some of the best-qualified surgeons in the world.”

Plus, patients will be able to see some of the world’s best scenery. “It’s something I’d never thought I’d be able to do,” says Hiltbrunner. “Now that we’re actually here, it’s overwhelming.”

After traveling on safari for the last two days, Hiltbrunner’s most dangerous African adventure awaits at the Johannesburg hospital where she’ll undergo her cosmetic procedures.

Surgeon Dr. Rick Van der Poel has already decided not to operate on Hiltbrunner’s thighs because it would be too risky for her to undergo so much surgery at once.

“One of our biggest problems is the fact that the patient has traveled a long way,” says Van der Poel. “They can get what they call an economy-class syndrome. We do all the blood tests, there’s a screening test, you can see for clots in the legs.”

Vanderpoel has also assured Hiltbrunner that the hospital’s blood supply has been screened for the AIDS virus. So Hiltbrunner undergoes six hours of surgery on her face, eyes and arms.

The Hiltbrunners estimate their African adventure has cost them about $20,000 in all — $13,000 of that for the surgery. They easily could have spent at least $30,000 in the United States, for the surgery alone.

Hiltbrunner’s recovery at her luxury hotel goes smoothly. And just 10 days after surgery, the couple travels home

Two months later, Hiltbrunner attends her son, Sean’s wedding. And the verdict is unanimous. While to the average eye, the results may seem subtle, to Colleen, the surgery’s made a world of difference.

“While it’s not a Jennifer Anniston arm, compared to what I had before, for a 53-year-old woman, I’ll be pleased with it. And I’m glad I had it done,” says Hiltbrunner.

“Her whole outlook on life has greatly changed,” adds her husband, Don. “She just radiates.”

“I had kind of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. And I took advantage of it,” says Hiltbrunner. “And I’m very glad I did.” © MMIV, CBS Worldwide Inc. All Rights Reserved.