A Sydney pain specialist tells inquiry of personal anguish treating pelvic mesh victims

Pain: Women's Health and Research Institute of Australia pain specialists Professor Thierry Vancaillie and Elizabeth Howard in Sydney after giving evidence at a Senate inquiry into pelvic mesh devices.
Pain: Women's Health and Research Institute of Australia pain specialists Professor Thierry Vancaillie and Elizabeth Howard in Sydney after giving evidence at a Senate inquiry into pelvic mesh devices.

A PAIN specialist treating women pelvic mesh device victims has told a Senate inquiry she had to see a psychologist for help because of the severity of the suffering women experienced.

“I don’t know how you can be human and not be affected,” Women’s Health and Research Institute of Australia osteopath and pain management specialist Liz Howard told a mesh inquiry public hearing in Sydney on Monday.

“I was awake at 3am every night trying to find how can we help these women,” she said.

Institute director Professor Thierry Vancaillie told the inquiry the institute had seen 54 new patients in 2017 seeking help for severe, permanent and disabling pain after mesh surgery, with an average of six new women patients per week since August.

I don't know how you can be human and not be affected.

Pain specialist Liz Howard talking about pelvic mesh victims

While the institute has treated women with chronic pelvic pain since 1999, it had increasingly treated women with chronic pain related to mesh surgery since 2007, only a few years after the first mesh tapes were cleared for use in Australia for incontinence and prolapse after childbirth.

The Senate inquiry into pelvic mesh devices was established after a campaign led by women survivors who formed the Australian Pelvic Mesh Support Group, and a speech in Federal Parliament by Senator Derryn Hinch. The systemic medical industry failures flowing from the pelvic mesh decade, where about 150,000 mesh devices were implanted in women, was one of the greatest medical scandals against women in Australian history, Senator Hinch said.

More than 800 Australian women are taking part in a class action against just one mesh manufacturer, Johnson & Johnson, and another 500 are registered in a class action against a second mesh manufacturer.

Professor Vancaillie said many women implanted with pelvic mesh devices were dismissed by their doctors for years – sometimes for more than a decade – when they experienced extreme and disabling pain.

While pain management specialists had been proactive in trying to learn ways to treat women, the gynaecologists who implanted the devices weren’t as “forthcoming” in acknowledging and addressing the serious pain complications following mesh, Professor Vancaillie told the inquiry.

Women victims of mesh devices, Jo Manion and Gai Thompson, both cried while giving evidence about the severe impacts of mesh surgery, with both women saying the pain and other severe effects had led them to experience suicidal thoughts.

I am no longer the wife, mother and friend I used to be. I am a Christian and have a very strong faith but to be bluntly honest, I am just hanging on by a thread.

Pelvic mesh victim Gai Thompson

“I am no longer the wife, mother and friend I used to be. I am a Christian and have a very strong faith but to be bluntly honest, I am just hanging on by a thread,” said Mrs Thompson, who was 43 when she was implanted with a Johnson & Johnson prolapse device, without warnings of the extreme complications that could occur.

Mrs Thompson cried when talking about the impact on her husband and two daughters, who were at the inquiry, after evidence that her mesh surgery had forced the family to sell their house and move to a unit.

“My eldest daughter can’t live with us because we haven’t got the room,” Mrs Thompson said.

“I would like one of these doctors to spend one day in my life. The pain is indescribable.”

She accused doctors, mesh manufacturers, regulators and medical colleges of minimising the systemic failures that led to some pelvic mesh devices being cleared for use in Australia and overseas by quoting statistics showing complications occurred in a minority of women.

“I’m not a statistic. I’m not a percentage. I’m not collateral damage,” Mrs Thompson said.

Ms Manion told the inquiry her doctor did not raise issues about the risks, but said he told her she would be “back at the gym in 10 days” after the surgery.

“He said I would be like a 16-year-old virgin after the implants,” she said.

Instead the disabling pain that she experienced as soon as she woke from the surgery left her in “a world of pain” and seeking the kind of painkillers usually reserved for palliative care patients.

“There were days when I did not want to live," she said.

“I have lost my house, my job and my self esteem. I now know I did not require a mesh. I’m on a disability support pension. In the end it drove me to the point where I just thought I’m ready to check out. I’ve had enough.”

Sydney urogynaecologist Dr Jenny King told the inquiry doctors were not credentialed to implant mesh devices, and were not credentialed to remove them.

Told that a woman of 29 was implanted with a pelvic mesh device, Dr King said that was “too young”.

A Hunter woman was 21 when she was implanted with a pelvic mesh device.

Dr King told the inquiry that some pelvic mesh surgeons were “over-enthusiastic” with their use of the devices.