Six years ago, Carolyn Churchill, 57, from near Pontypridd in Wales, was in a long-term relationship, worked as a chef, and spent hours each week walking with her dogs and looking after her granddaughter’s pony. She was busy and content, but was bothered by stress incontinence, which affects roughly 10% of women.
“Never knowing when you’re going out if you’re going to wee yourself. It really got to the stage where it was embarrassing,” she recalls.
She was referred to a specialist who advised a TVT mesh implant, which Churchill believed would be a quick fix. As the epidural wore off after surgery, though, she immediately felt something was amiss. “I was in absolute agony, but they wouldn’t listen to me and made me feel like some sort of baby, and that it was normal,” she says. “If I could have walked to the A&E that night, I would’ve begged them to take it out.”
Churchill experienced “ripping, burning” pains in her side and legs, numbness in the soles of her feet and suddenly found it impossible to bend over. Three months after the initial surgery, she had to leave her job. “It’s very difficult to explain, particularly if your boss is a man,” she says.
“When we actually managed it, my partner said ‘What the hell is that?’” she recalls. Churchill discovered the mesh had eroded the wall of her vagina and poked through. “I was horrified,” she says.
She had surgery under general anaesthetic to cut away the protruding mesh, but her other symptoms did not improve. Doctors appeared reluctant to accept that the implant could be to blame, though.
“I was sent for hip X-rays, I was sent for physiotherapy, which made the pain worse. They offered me mental health counselling,” she says. “They even sent me to the GUM [sexual health] clinic for counselling on having sex. I said, ‘It’s not that I don’t want to …’.”
Cancer was investigated as a possible explanation for persistent bleeding, she says. “I was terrified because I lost my sister to cancer, and my mother. I kept thinking, ‘I have got it but they can’t find it’. I really thought I was dying.”
She describes the prevailing attitude as “there’s nothing wrong with the mesh – it’s you”.
When she asked if she could have the mesh taken out, she was told this was not guaranteed to stop the pain – and that removal carried its own risk of complications. “It was hell trying to make that decision,” she says.
Churchill finally had her mesh fully removed in May 2016, a major surgical procedure with a lengthy recovery period.
Today, she feels better physically, but remains traumatised and says her life has been permanently altered by her experience. She talks of lost time with her grandchildren and how caring for her 93-year-old father has been a struggle. Her relationship broke down and she is unsure if she will work again.
Who does she blame for her experience? “I think the government should take responsibility,” says Churchill. “When there was all the problems with breast implants they stood up and said it would never happen again. And all that time, it was already happening to thousands of us. I want someone to stand up and say sorry for what they’ve done to us.”
If you are a woman who has experienced problems with a mesh implant, these can be reported to the MHRA. The British Society of Urogynaecology has compiled a list of units with experience in treating mesh complications.