Despite a damning inquiry and the promise of specialist treatment, many of those suffering life-changing side effects feel forgotten
In 2020, a panel recommended centres be created for mesh removal, but two years on women say they are still suffering (Photo: Getty)
By Rachel Moss
At 34 years old, Dawn Jaxson had two young daughters. Since going through childbirth she had been experiencing a prolapsed bladder and urinary incontinence. Her doctors recommended she have a vaginal mesh fitted to treat the problem, and she didn’t question their advice.
But more than 15 years later, she wishes she had. “As soon as I’d actually had it fitted, I felt discomfort,” says Jaxson, now 50 and based in Rainford, Merseyside. “Then the pain just didn’t go.” After years of almost constant pelvic pain and “countless” medical appointments, Jaxson says: “This little tiny piece of tape is still ruining my life.”
“I can literally be sat down and then out of nowhere, it will be like somebody is shoving a red-hot poker through my bladder,” she tells i. “Being intimate with somebody is just impossible. Sex is no joy. Imagine your worst period pain you could possibly have, and that’s what it’s like on a daily basis.”
Vaginal mesh – or transvaginal tape (TVT) – was once routinely recommended to women who experienced pelvic organ prolapse (in which the pelvic organs protrude into the vagina) or stress urinary incontinence (bladder leaks), conditions that affect some women after childbirth. Synthetic surgical mesh was permanently implanted to reinforce the vaginal wall or support the urethra or bladder neck.
But research now shows that the mesh can erode in the body, shortening or tightening over time, even perforating organs.
A sample of transvaginal mesh that was routinely used until recently to treat pelvic floor disorders and incontinence in women (Photo: Ted S. Warren/AP)
NHS Digital records show that between April 2008 and March 2017, 100,516 patients had a tape insertion procedure for stress urinary incontinence. A further 27,016 patients had a mesh procedure for pelvic organ prolapse. But the surgery was suspended in Scotland in 2014 and across the rest of the UK by 2018 following complaints about complications – and a review ordered.
The review panel, overseen by Baroness Julia Cumberlege, spoke to more than 700 affected individuals and concluded that pelvic mesh procedures had caused “anguish, suffering, and many ruined lives”.
In 2020, the panel set out nine recommendations to help the thousands of women affected, including the creation of specialist centres, so patients could have their mesh removed or receive further treatment. But two years on from that landmark report, women say they are still suffering debilitating symptoms and struggling to access the help they so desperately need.
“I’ve gone from gynaecologist to gynaecologist to try and get myself sorted. I had never heard of any of these clinics until now, ” says Jaxson. “Why has nobody said this to me? Why can’t I go to one of these clinics? I don’t even know how you access one.”
Jaxson is a single parent and full-time carer to her autistic daughter, and says the pain she suffered due to the mesh certainly “hasn’t helped”.
Nikki Davis, Dawn Jaxson and Cheryl Howard all suffered after treatment with vaginal mesh
Other women have been forced to cut down their working hours or give up careers due to vaginal mesh complications. Cheryl Howard, 55, from Flackwell Heath in Buckinghamshire, was a real “gym bunny” and full-time hairdresser before she had TVT fitted in 2009 aged 42. Now, she works reduced hours as a mobile hairdresser, is not well enough to carry her own shopping, and has to use a special gel pillow when sitting on hard chairs.
Howard had a prolapsed uterus and was experiencing mild incontinence after childbirth when playing with her two boys on the trampoline. Her doctor recommended a “tape fitting” to stop the mishaps. She says the word “mesh” was never used. At first, the procedure was a success, bringing relief to her symptoms, but several years later, she started experiencing backache that got progressively worse.
“When I worked in a barber’s shop the whole day, if I dropped anything, I couldn’t bend down to pick it up,” she says. “And then there’s groin pains, which have steadily got worse. Over the last three years, if I’m standing on my feet a lot, my stomach swells up like I’m pregnant. It [feels like] the tape is rubbing and your tissue is sort of swelling up to protect that area. It feels like it’s cutting. I kept going to the doctors and they kept saying it was all in my head.”
By chance, Howard saw a BBC Panorama 2017 documentary about vaginal mesh and checked her own medical notes. She was shocked to discover she had been given a TVT mesh implant all those years ago. “It makes me want to scream,” she says.
Armed with this new information, she repeatedly went back to her GP, but says she continually felt “fobbed off”. Last September, she was finally referred to a specialist mesh centre in Manchester, but almost a year later, she is yet to receive a date for her first appointment.
“I’m looking forward to it in some ways, because I just want some answers,” she says. “I know something’s happened to [the mesh], because I know my own body.”
Clinics are ‘not fit for purpose’
Some women who manage to access the specialist clinics say they are not fit for purpose. Nikki Davis, 52, has repeatedly had to travel the 165 miles to the mesh clinic in Bristol, the closest one to her home near Redruth in Cornwall. She had TVT fitted in 2007 when she was 37 due to incontinence and pelvic pain after childbirth, and says the operation led to “water infection after water infection”.
“It feels like cheese wire,” she says of the mesh. “It’s like, if someone’s scratching the top of your skin really hard, but it’s like that internally. And then you’re getting shooting pains in your pelvis. It is hard to describe, but it is excruciating.”
After years of feeling ignored, Davis was finally referred to the mesh clinic in Bristol in 2020, where a doctor confirmed what she had always believed: the mesh was causing her problems. Scans revealed the mesh had been fastened to her bladder with two metal clips. She had an operation to remove the clips and at first, her symptoms eased. But in 2021, they flared up again and she now wants the entire mesh removed.
Davis says vaginal mesh destroyed her relationship and her career. She used to work as a retail manager before she was signed off on long-term sickness. When she exceeded the maximum statutory sick pay allowance of 28 weeks, she began claiming benefits.
“From a high-paid job, being on benefits is a nightmare,” she says. “I’m now divorced, because emotionally it affected me and my husband couldn’t understand why I didn’t want sex. That broke our marriage of 24 years.”
Research shows that women who have undergone mesh surgery have higher rates of depression, anxiety or self-harm than women who have not. The three women who spoke to i say vaginal mesh has affected their mental health.
“I lost my house and now I’m renting, and I’m struggling paying for this,” says Howard. “I’m really anxious; I take anxiety tablets every night. I worry what I’m going to be like when I become an old lady. What sort of quality of life is that going to be?”
Meanwhile, both Jaxson and Davis say they’ve experienced suicidal thoughts due to vaginal mesh complications. “I will be honest with you. I have thought about taking my own life over this,” Jaxson says. “I think to myself: ‘Is this all I’ve got?’”
Davis adds: “You think: ‘Is life worth going on?’ You’re constantly in pain with something. Many times I think, ‘Well, I’d be better off not here.’ If I was an animal, by now I would have been put to sleep. That’s how it affects you. Emotionally, I can get some dark, dark days.”
Kath Sansom campaigns for justice for women suffering complications from vaginal mesh after an implant turned her own life upside down
Kath Sansom, the founder of the campaigning group Sling the Mesh, has heard many similar stories from among the group’s 9,700 members. The 54-year-old from Cambridgeshire had her own life turned upside down by a mesh implant and lobbied for Baroness Cumberlege’s 2020 review. Now, she says women affected by the scandal deserve compensation.
“The lack of action on financial redress is the biggest disappointment for women,” she says. “Pelvic mesh caused lifelong damage, and worse, the majority of us were not given any information on the risks. It’s not our fault this happened to us.
“Some women have been left disabled in wheelchairs or walking with sticks. Others have had organs removed where mesh has turned brittle and sliced into them. Seven in 10 have lost their sex life. Everyone suffers chronic pain in varying degrees. Women have lost jobs, marriages, homes, and their quality of life.”
Although she initially welcomed the specialist mesh clinics, Sansom claims there’s “no joined-up thinking” regarding how to remove mesh and a lack of standardised outcomes across the UK. “Some of these specialist centres are run by pro-mesh surgeons who want the current incontinence mesh surgery suspension lifted,” she claims.
“With long waiting lists to be seen for a first consultation and some told they need pain management and not a full mesh removal, there is a sense of hopelessness on the [Sling the Mesh] forum page, which is utterly heartbreaking.”
In response to claims that women are still struggling to access support for vaginal mesh complications, a Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson told i: “We recognise the distressing impact complications from implanted mesh can have on women, and we have worked with NHS England to set up nine specialist centres so women across the country can access the treatment they need.
“We take patient safety seriously and have appointed the first Patient Safety Commissioner for England, whose role is focused on promoting the safety of patients where medicines and medical devices are used. Women’s health is a top priority for government and we’re working closely with NHS England to strengthen safety measures and ensure all women are protected.”
Jaxson, Howard and Davis are all awaiting further treatment. But they agree that intervention – when it finally arrives – will never undo the damage mesh has already caused to their lives. “You’re not the woman you used to be,” says Ms Davis. ‘“And you never will be.”