Incontinence

21 September 2017

Surgery horror: ‘I was only 33 but I felt like a granny’

Transvaginal mesh has been touted as the solution for women who suffer from incontinence. These women, however, tell a different story.

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Transvaginal mesh is used to correct incontinence – it’s innovative, simple, non-invasive and works well to keep a woman’s organs in place…

Or so the manufacturers want people to believe.

These women, however, tell a different story. 

Transvaginal mesh

The mesh is made from a synthetic plastic material called polypropylene. According to a previous Health24 article, this plastic is implanted through the vagina and although the procedure is becoming more common, it is also regarded as dangerous to some women.

It’s used to fix pelvic organ prolapse and stress urinary incontinence, conditions usually associated with childbirth, hysterectomy or even menopause.

However, this seemingly innovative procedure and product has also been the subject of class action lawsuits against the manufacturer Johnson & Johnson in Australia and the UK for a number of years. 

Women have opened up about how it has affected them. 

‘I was only 33 but I felt like a granny’

“I was told it was a 20-minute procedure and, if it ended the misery of incontinence, it would transform my life,” Cat Lee, 43, told the Huffington Post. “It was a type called TVTO, or Tension-Free Vaginal Tape Obturator.”

Unfortunately the surgery didn’t help her incontinence. She recalls, “I was so ashamed and humiliated. I’d gone back to work, six months after having Charlie [her second child], but I was still wetting myself. On [one] occasion, as I marched across the campus, I felt a rush between my legs. I’d wet myself and it had soaked right through the pad I’d been wearing. I was only 33, but I felt like a granny. I even had to ask a colleague to buy me some new tights, although I was too embarrassed to tell her why.”

Her husband, Gordon, became her carer and their sex life suffered. “As for sex, it was strictly out of bounds because of the pain. I even suggested he could sleep with someone else. Luckily, he refused, saying it was me he loved.”

Ten years later, she says the “so-called simple” vaginal mesh surgery ruined her life. 

“Luckily, we didn’t want any more kids, but I don’t feel like proper mum to Charlie. I can only do the school run a few times a week and then, he has to walk alongside my mobility scooter. I can’t play with him like other mums and I don’t feel like much of a wife either.”

‘My sex life has ended and I’m only 41’

“Sometimes the pain was so bad it was as if my insides were being ripped apart. I had so many scans and investigations which showed nothing: I now know that the mesh is only visible on a translabial ultrasound scan,” Kate Langley, 41, told Helen Carroll and Jo Waters of the Daily Mail

She had the surgery in 2012 and has been admitted to hospital 53 times since.  

“When my specialist first suggested TVT surgery, I’d got to the stage where I had to wear incontinence pads so I thought: ‘Great! I can get back to normal life.’”

Four days later she was readmitted to hospital with agonising pain. “I was in and out of hospital over the coming weeks, always in crippling agony. The ongoing discomfort made it difficult for me to walk.”

A couple of years after her surgery, Langely began to suffer from urinary tract infections every few months. 

“Two-and-a-half years after the op I had to give up my child-minding business, due to spending so much time in hospital. They didn’t discover the problem was the mesh until April 2015 – that September, rather than have a long wait to have it removed on the NHS, I saw a private surgeon my wonderful extended family paid for: I was told the mesh had torn into my bladder, urethra and a main nerve.”

Although most of the mesh has been removed, Langely is still in constant pain. “It couldn’t all be removed as it was so embedded – they think I will always have pain.”

“My sex life has ended and I’m only 41, so that puts a strain on our marriage. My not working hasn’t helped either as we’re in debt.”

‘I wish I’d just relied on exercises and sanitary towels’

“I knew the minute I woke up from surgery that something was wrong,” Dawn Martin, 55, told Radhika Sanghani of The Telegraph. “It felt like broken glass down there. I could barely empty my bladder. It was agony – and it didn’t stop. I called my GP in tears saying 'please sedate me so I don’t have to be in this pain anymore'. I thought it would never end.”

She had four children over five years when she was in her 20s. Two decades later and her incontinence just got worse. 

“My sister-in-law had already had the surgery and said it was great. At the time my husband was having open heart surgery so I was too preoccupied to look into all the pros and cons. I thought it would be fine and would solve this one problem, but it was probably the worst thing I’d ever done,” she says, three years after she had the implant.

More than a year later after having the initial surgery, in 2015, the mesh was removed. Doctors discovered it had shrunk more than they’d expected, and was slicing through her urethra and into her bladder. 

Although the mesh has been removed, Martin still has severe health problems. “I still have issues down there, and a total lack of libido. I’m also permanently exhausted. I don’t feel attractive anymore. I feel it’s aged me by 20 years. I feel like a completely different person. I wish I’d never had the surgery and just relied on exercises and sanitary towels.”

Image credit: iStock

 

Ask the Expert

Incontinence Expert

Prenevin Govender completed his MBChB at the University of Cape Town in 2001. He obtained his Fellowship of the College of Urologists in 2009 and graduated with distinction for a Masters in Medicine from the University of Cape Town in 2010. His special interests include laparoscopic, pelvic organ prolapse and urinary incontinence surgery. He consults full-time at Life Kingsbury Hospital in Claremont.

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