‘The pain was instant’: The devastating impact of vaginal mesh surgery | Artificial intelligence
Millions of women over the last two decades have undergone vaginal mesh surgery, but it has recently become clear just how many have experienced severe complications. In our main interview this week, we hear from Sohier Elneil, one of the few surgeons in the UK qualified to remove mesh. Here, Kath Sansom shares her story of what it’s like to undergo the treatment and the impact it had on her life. She had a mesh sling implanted in March 2015 to treat mild stress urinary incontinence. It was removed seven months later. She now runs the Sling the Mesh campaign to raise awareness of mesh complications and support mesh-injured women in the UK.
How did you feel after the mesh was implanted?
The pain was instant. I struggled to walk. The pain down the backs of my legs felt like really deep, heavy toothache. It hurt me to walk, sit, lie. I couldn’t get any relief. I had cheese-wiring pains in my vagina, burning pain so bad I couldn’t even use a tampon. In the weeks before, I did a boxing class, high-board diving and mountain biking. I went from that to excruciating pain.
How did the pain evolve?
You’re supposed to be better within a week, but it gradually got worse and worse.
Did you know about the possible side effects before the operation?
I was told I was having a sling put in to hold stuff up. I was told it was simple, it was the gold standard, low risk and really easy. I was told there might be a bit of bleeding and a bit of pain but that it was just short term and it would settle.
If you were told: “You can have this little operation but you might lose your sex life”, you wouldn’t see anyone for dust. Or if your doctor said: “You can have this little operation and you might not be able to walk – but at least you won’t wee your pants.” You’d run out the door!
Were you in pain the whole time you had the mesh implant?
Some days were worse than others. I discovered high-dose nerve blockers, high-dose painkillers, which helped though never truly took the pain away. What’s awful is that you just get used to living with high levels of pain – because you have no choice.
I was self-employed at the time, so I had to go to work. It was difficult but I cracked on because I had to. Luckily, my children are older – 16 and 21. But even though my story isn’t anything compared to the hell that some women go through, even for me, it upset my children to see their once-vibrant mum coming home from work and having to get in the bath and then get in bed early because I hurt. I never let them see my tears, but they know, kids are not daft. It has affected them to see me compromised.
So you had the mesh removed. How did that go?
I got a lot better, although I’m right up there at the good end of recovery compared with other women. I can still swim. But even so, it’s a new normal. I have to be very careful when putting impact on my legs, I have to be careful how I move. If I overdo things I can end up in pain the next day and having to take strong painkillers. I’ve got all these pain relievers in my bag just in case, because I’m never quite sure what might trigger it off.
Why do you think the implanting of mesh has gone on for as long as it has, in light of such complications?
A lot of the quality-of-life questionnaires, which are used to collect data for clinical trials, focus on if the operation has fixed the original problem. Yes, the women have had their incontinence fixed, their prolapse fixed, but their lives may have been completely destroyed. And the questionnaires are just not capturing that data. If you don’t ask the right questions, you don’t get the answers.
So a lot of trials that find mesh is low risk and effective. Well yes, because they’re not actually looking at whether mesh causes pain, loss of sex life, constant urinary tract infections. And that’s really key to this issue and how it has gone on for so long.
What would you say is the worst aspect of your experience?
You go from being a healthy mum with a bit of an embarrassing problem, to suddenly your life is turned on its head. And you’ve got to accept that this is now your life because even if you have a mesh removal, you will never go back to the woman you were.
I’ve had a relatively good recovery, so accepting my new normal has been a lot easier than for some others. For example there’s one woman who was super fit and into martial arts. She’s now in a mobility scooter. On a psychological level, it’s really hard to get your head around how that can result from a “simple” operation that was supposed to improve your quality of life. It takes your breath away.
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