'A pelvic mesh implant ruined my life – yet doctors dismissed me as a hysterical woman'

Carole Davies
Carole Davies shares her story of having a pelvic mesh infection - Heathcliff O'Malley

When I was told a simple 20-minute operation would solve my mild incontinence and prolapsed bladder, I felt like one of the chosen ones. The consultant told me it was a brand-new system with less recovery time, and it sounded like exactly what I needed. But just hours after the operation, when I was lying in agony on hospital sheets soaked through with blood, I realised I’d been misled.

The operation I had was a ‘pelvic mesh implant’. More than 92,000 women underwent this procedure between 2007 and 2015 in England. I had my operation in 2007, and like thousands of others, it has ruined my life. It’s estimated that up to one in four of us have suffered complications. 

Many have described it as like having razor blades inside them. Others have constant pelvic pain and infections, and are unable to sleep. Some have suffered organ failure and died. One woman, that we know of, took her own life because she couldn’t live with the agony.

This week an independent review chaired by Baroness Julia Cumberlege has finally been published. It looked at three things that have impacted the lives of thousands of women: the pregnancy test Primodos, associated with birth defects and miscarriage; the epilepsy drug sodium valproate, which can cause defects and developmental problems in children; and vaginal mesh implants like mine. 

Baroness Cumberlege said she was shocked by the "sheer scale" and "intensity of suffering". Her report calls the situation ‘damning’ and calls on the UK government to apologise. I was one of the 700 women who contributed to her review, and I’m pleased our plight is being acknowledged at last. Specialist centres are now being set up to help us cope.

But I still can’t believe this was ever allowed to happen. I was 61 when I had the procedure, and the consultant didn’t even use the word “mesh”. I didn’t know it would have this impact. No one told me about the side-effects, and I was completely unprepared for spending five agonising days in hospital. When I was discharged I found myself in A&E because it was already infected, and when I had my hospital follow-up months later, I was still in pain.

The doctor didn’t believe me. He told me I was the only one complaining and there was nothing wrong with me. He wanted to refer me to a psychiatrist but I knew my brain was fine; it was my body that wasn’t. This is something that has come up time and time again during the review: that women weren’t believed when they said they were in pain, and their suffering was simply written off as “women’s problems”.

The dangerous treatments given to women

For five years after the operation, I was in constant tears. I’d relive it every night in bed. It wasn’t just the pain – I forced myself to get used to that. It was the fact that my intimate relationship with my partner of 29 years had completely stopped. I’m still so lucky to have Malcolm by my side, but we’ve become more like brother and sister. I don’t feel like a woman anymore.

It also robbed me of the chance to enjoy being a grandmother. I have three grandchildren, now 13, 16 and 20. Back when I first had the operation, I couldn’t pick them up or play with them. I had backache and my legs had begun to give way, as the mesh can affect leg nerves in the groin.

Luckily, I’d already planned to take early retirement as a personnel assistant at the National Institute of Medical Research. But it was so hard not being able to enjoy all the things I’d planned, from hill-walking to holidays. 

I’m not alone. There are women who have had the mesh penetrate their bowels and bladder. I have a 50-year-old friend who has to wear two colostomy bags. The procedures are no longer so commonplace, and women like myself are now having the mesh removed. I had the first of two operations back in October. The surgeon found my pain was being caused by the mesh eroding and removed as much as she could – but they can’t take it all out.

My next operation has been delayed because of coronavirus. I’m hoping that this will put an end to the pains in my stomach and groin. But I’m not convinced it will, and it will never be able to take back the 13 years that I’ve lost. 

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I feel like a guinea pig. I’d never have consented to the operation had I known what it would entail, and would much rather have lived with incontinence and prolapse than this. And it was made so much harder by the doctors being so dismissive and treating me like a hysterical woman, saying it was all in my head.

Baroness Cumberlege said this week: “Much of this suffering was entirely avoidable, caused and compounded by failings in the health system itself. We couldn’t believe that people had gone through so much agony and suffering and had been ignored.”

She’s right, and I’m hoping a lot of things in the report will be standardised. The one thing I hope they do is make sure people can take legal action without a time limit, as sometimes the mesh only becomes a problem years down the line. You’re a walking time bomb.

As told to Radhika Sanghani