The wait is over, you’ve given birth, and as you gaze adoringly at your baby sleeping in her cot while you cope on minimum sleep, the last thing on your mind is wetting yourself. But for one in three women the pressure put on pelvic floor muscles by pregnancy and childbirth can be a recipe for ‘oops’ moments when they sneeze, laugh, or jump on the trampoline with the children.
As weeks, months and years pass, many women manage to restore their pelvic floor, but for a third of mums the problem slowly gets worse. We laugh it off – squeeze before you sneeze – but some, like me, decide to fix it.
However, I want to warn all new mums to please try natural solutions before going under the knife for what is called the ‘gold standard’ fix for incontinence. The surgery is a 20-minute day-case procedure. It is carried out on 13,000 women a year in the UK on the NHS, but the risks are not explained properly to patients.
How I wish I had steered well clear of surgery and instead concentrated on my Kegel exercises after my lovely children (Josh, now 14, and Jessica, 8) were born, like French women do. In France, 20 sessions of gynaecology physiotherapy are offered to all mums after they give birth. In it they learn to do their Kegel exercises properly, so the problem is stopped before it gets out of hand. In tailored sessions, a tiny probe is inserted, and women squeeze as characters pop up on a computer screen – a bit like Pac-Man for your privates! But in England we mums are not so lucky, and the Kegel exercise advice is largely ignored, as it is not something that is widely discussed at the new mum stage.
I was told this surgical fix would be the answer to my life’s leaks prayers, so in 2012 I had what is called a TVTO mesh bladder sling inserted. From the start I had severe abdominal pain. Doctors put it down to endometriosis, but really the pain baffled them, and a few months later they removed my gallbladder as they thought the agonising pain was gallstones – it was like childbirth contractions with shooting pelvic pain. But still the pain coursed through my body, so in 2014 I had a hysterectomy.
The pain raged on. I had confused the medics. Some days I would collapse on the floor. I felt like my inside was being ripped in half. I’ve had nearly 50 hospital admissions now, many of them in an ambulance and needing Entonox, morphine or ketamine.
Nobody knew what was happening to me until I went to a different hospital, where a doctor discovered that the plastic mesh, with edges as sharp as a razor blade, had eroded through my vagina. So in I went again for another operation to remove a tiny bit of mesh that had protruded through. A week later, however, the trips to A&E began again as pain consumed me. Finally doctors realised that the mesh tape sling was sitting in the wrong position and I needed to find a specialist.
There are only a handful of surgeons in the world who can remove mesh slings when things go wrong, and I was lucky enough to be referred to Suzi Elneil in London, who said the mesh sling was pinching a major nerve called the obturator. It was also sitting in the wrong position inside me. By now I was in agony when I urinated. Every so often my leg would go weak and I had a limp. My family clubbed together to pay for the surgery privately to remove the sling. Pieces of the plastic had eroded into my urethra, bladder and obturator nerve. It was such a mess that the surgeon had to reconstruct my urethra.
By now I needed daily doses of strong nerve-blocking drugs. Thankfully I found an online Facebook support group called Sling The Mesh, where I connected with other women, also suffering mesh problems, who understood the agonising pain of when this operation goes wrong. Last year I had another operation to take out my ovaries and have a procedure called a Burch Colposuspension (like a hitch and stitch), which is the traditional surgical method of fixing incontinence.
However, in the following weeks, as the pain continued, a scan showed that there was still a piece of mesh under my pelvic arch in an extremely difficult-to-operate-on position. It is close to a main artery, so leaving it in could pose a real risk. It also means I will continue to get infections and pain. If I choose to go ahead it will be life-risking surgery.
I’m terrified about having this final piece of mesh taken out, but I’m also terrified of leaving it in.
Before the mesh sling, I was a happy, healthy mum of two children. I had my own business as a registered childminder, but I had to give it up as I’d collapse in agony and became unreliable. I tried to work in a preschool, but I had to give that up too. If I do too much, it triggers the pain attacks, so I’m now at home. I’ve lost all my confidence, I suffer from anxiety and I’m covered in psoriasis, probably due to the stress of it all. I can’t work, so we have got into debt relying on my husband’s salary to support us. I can’t walk far because of the pain, so I’ve put on a lot of weight too, which makes me miserable. I always try to appear happy and positive to others, but inside I spend my time in fear at the thought of my children not having a mum any more. I have virtually no sex life either, due to pain caused by all the surgery. I’m lucky to have such a kind husband who supports me.
So to all new mums I would say please don’t fix those embarrassing moments with mesh sling surgery. I wish to God I could press a rewind button so I could stop myself making the worst mistake of my life.
As you gaze adoringly at your gorgeous new baby, please remember to do your Kegels. You can go to your GP and ask to be referred to the local specialist gynaecology physio team. Put it on your to-do list – alongside buying nappies, baby shampoo and trying to get a decent night’s sleep.
For more information about the risk of TVT or TVTO mesh bladder slings, please visit Sling The Mesh on Facebook or Twitter.