Pelvic mesh death horrifies consumer health groups campaigning for total mesh ban

Close: Alison Blake and daughter Leesa Tolhurst. Mrs Blake committed suicide in June, 2015 after multiple pelvic mesh surgery operations that left her with severe and disabling pain, and unable to urinate without a catheter.

Close: Alison Blake and daughter Leesa Tolhurst. Mrs Blake committed suicide in June, 2015 after multiple pelvic mesh surgery operations that left her with severe and disabling pain, and unable to urinate without a catheter.

ALISON Blake took her own life in June 2015 only two weeks after a doctor told her nothing could be done to ease her pain or address the devastating consequences of pelvic mesh device surgery.  

“I cannot bear the thought of leaving you but the emotional torment and physical pain I’m going through are just too much,” Mrs Blake, 64, said in a final letter to her only child, Leesa Tolhurst.

“I simply cannot bear to be lying on a couch for months on end and to have to rely on catheters, enemas, Temazepam, pain killers and be a burden to my family and friends.”

Mrs Tolhurst sobbed this week as she remembered the turning point for her mother.

“She’d gone to the doctor hoping that perhaps something could be done. She was hysterical when she came here and said there was nothing left. I just tried to comfort her. I remember her as she drove away from my house, there was just a look in her eyes,” Mrs Tolhurst said.

Mrs Blake, a primary school teacher, was implanted with a prolapse pelvic mesh device in October, 2013 and suffered immediate complications, including severe and consistent pain. Her surgeon tried to remove the mesh six weeks later. She had further unsuccessful surgery to treat the complications in May and July, 2014. By November, 2014, the pelvic mesh device was one of the first in the world to be removed from the market because of lack of evidence it was safe and effective to use.

They robbed her of dignity.

Leesa Tolhurst about her mother, Alison Blake.

In 2009 the then NSW Medical Board described her surgeon’s complaint history as “extensive”.  

In the final 16 months of her life Mrs Blake was unable to urinate without a catheter.

“She had to lay on the ground to use the catheter and she had to do that about every two hours,” Mrs Tolhurst, of Caloundra in Queensland. said.

Mrs Blake’s sister Heather Paton remembers standing in a Sydney private hospital room when Mrs Blake told her: “I have to catheterise myself for the rest of my life”.

“The nurses were trying to show her how to do it and she was saying ‘But I can’t do this, I can’t do this’,” Mrs Paton said.

“She was desperate. She couldn’t see how she could do what they told her she had to do for the rest of her life. It was no life. She was sent home that way.

“She couldn’t attend our father’s funeral because there were no facilities at the crematorium to lay down and do what she had to do. Her life was reduced to places within two hours of her home, and only where she could lay down to catheterise herself.”

Victorian consumer health advocate Danny Vadasz said he was horrified by Mrs Blake’s death. This was despite many of the more than 2000 women who responded to a pelvic mesh survey for a Senate inquiry saying they had felt suicidal because of permanent and severe pelvic mesh injuries, including intractable pain.

Mr Vadasz was scathing of doctors, doctors’ groups and health regulators who defended pelvic mesh surgery by saying thousands of women benefited, despite acknowledging the severe consequences of failed mesh surgery.

“That argument says there is some kind of acceptable collateral damage in terms of women’s lives, but that can never be accepted when so many women are left desperate. In the case of Alison Blake, to the point of suicide,” Mr Vadasz said.

In November Australia’s medical device regulator, the Therapeutic Goods Administration, announced a targeted ban of a final group of prolapse mesh devices implanted through the vagina, along with a group of problematic mesh slings to treat incontinence.

The TGA has removed 45 devices from the Australian market – with multiple variants – since a review in 2013, prompted by the global pelvic mesh scandal. Consumer health and women’s groups across the country have called for a total ban on all pelvic mesh devices, including “gold standard” stress incontinence mesh slings, because of severe injuries to some women.   

Mrs Tolhurst described her mother as “beautiful in every way and such a dignified lady”.

“They robbed her of dignity,” she said.

Mrs Tolhurst said she spent as much time as possible with her mother in the final two weeks of her life because of her fears.

“The week before she died I went over and she had paperwork on her desk. She said to me ‘If anything happens to me everything you need is here’.

“I just held her. I said ‘Mum, you’re going to be ok. We’re going to get through this’, but I was terrified.

“She died a week later. She just decided that was her last day.”

Mrs Tolhurst and Mrs Paton agreed to speak about Mrs Blake’s death because they believe many other Australian women are living desperate lives because of pelvic mesh surgery.

“She would want this to be exposed,” Mrs Tolhurst said.

“I love her and I’ll miss her for the rest of my life but I understand. I couldn’t live like that either. No one should have to live like that.”

People needing support for chronic pain can seek help at Chronic Pain Australia, www.chronicpainaustralia.org.au, Painaustralia, www.painaustralia.org.au or Australian Pain Management Association (APMA) at www.painmanagement.org.au

The Hunter Integrated Pain Service provides support at John Hunter Hospital, www.hnehealth.nsw.gov.au/pain.

Lifeline: 13 11 14. 

  • Suffer in Silence is a Newcastle Herald investigation spearheaded by journalist Joanne McCarthy

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