Glasgow, Scotland – Sleep is often a blessed relief for Nancy Honeyball. In a life filled with pain and discomfort, the 48-year-old’s only escape is the opioid painkiller, Tramadol, which can sometimes render her bedridden for 18 hours a day. For the Scotswoman, there are few comforts in a day-to-day existence that, as a married mother-of-two, was once full, happy and pain-free.
“I’m always in pain,” said Honeyball, who lives with her husband, William, in the seaside town of Dunoon, Argyllshire, on Scotland’s west coast.
“The tiredness just takes over – which is [largely] to do with the medication I’m on. And I can’t do things in the house that I used to do.”
Honeyball blames her excruciating bouts of ill-health on her vaginal mesh implant, which was fitted back in 2010 to remedy her urinary incontinence.
Over the past seven years, however, her life has been plagued by repeated urinary tract infections (UTIs). They are so severe that they have caused her crippling lower-back pain. In one of several emergency hospital visits, in October, she was hooked up to a morphine drip.
The mesh implants stretch, they fray, they become quite hardened and they pull on nerves.
Transvaginal mesh implants, the use and associated risks of which were debated in the UK parliament on October 18, have been used worldwide to repair weakened or damaged tissue that has caused pelvic organ prolapse and urinary incontinence – common conditions in women who have given birth. They are usually made from synthetic polypropylene.
In the UK alone, more than 100,000 women have had mesh implants over the past two decades – including more than 20,000 in Scotland where, in 2014, the then Scottish health secretary of the devolved Scottish government wrote to health boards requesting the suspension of mesh devices after a successful petition by campaigners.
For many, the procedure has proven successful, but for others, such as Honeyball, lives have been put under strain.
“The mesh implants stretch, they fray, they become quite hardened and they pull on nerves,” Wael Agur, a consultant urogynecologist with NHS Scotland and lecturer, told Al Jazeera.
“They become a tough structure in a sensitive area that needs to move … Although these complications are rare, it’s a lifetime risk – anyone can develop any complication in their lifetime if they’ve had a mesh implant.”
The mesh controversy has spawned survivor’s groups across the world.
Maria Smit, who is Dutch, cofounded a campaigning group, MeshedUp.
She said that her life was destroyed after being fitted with a mesh implant to solve a prolapse of the rectum and bladder nearly 10 years ago.
Married with three children, she told Al Jazeera that the post-operative complications surrounding her mesh surgery have caused her to become an “invalid”.
“And while doctors attempted to remove parts of the mesh, it has become hard and is situated close to vital parts of my body.”
We have people in our group that are contemplating suicide. They have literally gone from really healthy people to being completely incapacitated
Because of this, no other doctor has dared make further surgical interventions.
“I’m in pain every day – all day long,” said the 57-year-old, who lives in Helmond, southern Netherlands. “The pain leads from my bottom, the vagina, my groins and my hips into my legs. The nerve pain and the muscle pain dominate, but the pain in my bottom – where the doctor inserted the arms of my mesh – is also severe.”
Women across the world have reported similar crippling side effects, including a loss of normal sexual function. Indeed, some male partners of women fitted with mesh have even reported being injured by the device during intercourse.
As such, legal cases brought about by women claiming to have been maimed by vaginal mesh implants have piled up over recent years.
In the UK, one in 15 of those fitted with the most common type of mesh have required surgery and more than 800 women are taking legal action against the NHS and companies which manufacture the devices.
Charlotte Korte, a 46-year-old New Zealander who cofounded Mesh Down Under had an implant for a prolapsed bowel in 2010 and suffered complications.
Since the group began in 2012, membership has leaped from 90 in 2014 to almost 500 people today.
“We have people in our group that are contemplating suicide,” said Korte, who has two children. “They have literally gone from really healthy people to being completely incapacitated.”
Manufacturing company defends use
Pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson, the biggest mesh implant manufacturer, said it “empathised with all women suffering from pelvic organ prolapse and stress urinary incontinence, conditions that can be serious and debilitating”.
The company, which has been the subject of several legal cases, told Al Jazeera: “There are limited treatment choices for pelvic organ prolapse and stress urinary incontinence, including surgical treatment with implantable mesh, which is backed by years of clinical research and can be the preferred option for some women seeking to improve their quality of life.
“Ethicon [a Johnson & Johnson subsidiary] is confident in the positive impact our pelvic mesh products have had on the vast majority of women who have chosen this treatment option. The use of pelvic mesh devices is supported by medical experts, medical societies, physicians and regulatory organisations around the world.”
While campaigners hailed the October 18 UK parliamentary debate as a breakthrough, the government rejected a call from activists such as Kath Sansom, founder of the British-based Sling the Mesh group, for a public inquiry and suspension of surgical mesh, so that the rest of the UK could fall into line with Scotland.
As for Nancy Honeyball, she is pinning her hopes for a recovery on a mesh-removal specialist in London. But in the meantime, the pressures of life and her continuing inability to properly function on a day-to-day basis remain.
“My dad is 88 and has just been recently diagnosed with Parkinson’s [disease],” she explained. “He [lives] over an hour from me, but I can’t just jump in the car and go and visit him like I used to … My dad relies on his faith, and when I’ve stayed over there I’ve heard him praying. And he’s praying for me.”
Follow Alasdair Soussi on Twitter: @AlasdairSoussi