Women vs. Big Pharma in the Battle Over Trans-vaginal Mesh

A simple procedure was supposed to help fix an embarrassing women's health problem. Instead it left women in pain -- and in a fight for their dignity.

Women vs. Big Pharma in the Battle Over Trans-vaginal Mesh
Hal Samples
Aaron Horton as her alter ego: the Mesh Warrior.

It felt like fishing line was scratching him: That's how he knew something was wrong. His wife had been complaining for a while that sex hurt, but he thought maybe she just didn't want him anymore. Until, in the act, he felt it himself: something rough and wiry inside her body.

“Problem: Vagina is very odd-shaped, so you cannot use a preformed implant.”

Before the pain, Betty and John (not their real names), just 45 and 54, were the kind of aging but active patients that have been a boon to the medical industry, suffering from an array of maladies but happy to accept whatever treatment was available to keep enjoying life. Betty got her tubes tied in her early 20s, then, after a complication, agreed to get a hysterectomy at just 23. That weakened her bladder, so she got surgery to fix it. After six months, her bladder irritated her just like it had before the operation — always feeling like she needed to pee, leaking when she rushed to the toilet. She tried a second surgery, but that didn't work either.

There were other problems, too. She'd worked in an assembly line years before but quit after she developed carpal tunnel syndrome. Both she and her husband have diabetes. Still, they enjoyed life, staying in or going fishing at a lake near their Missouri home. They always expected to have many more years of sex.

"I'm an old man, but I'm not that old," John says. "It'd be early to be quitting already."

Betty had a guess of what was causing her pain. A few months earlier, her doctor had pitched her on a third surgery to fix her bladder. At the time, in 2004, it was a somewhat new, exciting procedure. The surgery itself would be minimally invasive, and she would leave with a promising new medical implant. "The way he described it to me, it was like a hammock," Betty says.

The hammock didn't bother her at first. But after a few months, she started to notice cramps in her pelvis and sharp pains when she used the bathroom. Sometimes she felt a strange pressure in her lower body. Tired of surgeries, she decided to accept the discomfort. "I'm just going to have to deal with it," she recalls thinking.

But the sex got worse, taking a toll on their love life. John agreed to do an exam of sorts on his wife, thinking maybe it was just some scar tissue. Instead, he found something odd: four plastic strings appeared to be coming out of her body, poking through back of her vagina.

Back at the doctor's office, a nurse took a look and found the cords, too. But if the wires coming out of Betty were strange, the response by the gynecologist who had assisted with the surgery was even stranger.

"There's nothing wrong," John says the doctor told them after taking a look. "I can't find anything."

Answerless, the couple turned to the Internet. It was there that Betty learned she was part of a growing group of women whose "hammocks" were causing intense pain — a pain that doctors, device-makers and the Food and Drug Administration were reluctant to even acknowledge, let alone respond to.

Those "hammocks," it turned out, were actually surgical mesh made out of polypropylene plastic, the same cheap material Betty knew from her fishing lines. She was horrified. She knew how breakable the material was. Yet it was supposed to stay inside of her body for the rest of her life. "If I would have known that ahead of time, I would not have let them be put in me," she says.

Eventually she found a doctor who believed her, she says, who confirmed that the mesh was in fact eroding through her vaginal wall. But the doctor didn't know how to get it out. He offered her some estrogen cream. Betty used up the whole tube in a few months.

She resolved to just live with it, and try to improve her health around the pain. She lost 130 pounds and left the wheelchair to which her diabetes had confined her. Yet sexually, her health deteriorated. She frequently got bladder infections that were passed to her husband, then passed back to her. The cords coming out of her grew longer. To this day, when she sits, it's like sitting on a tack.

Then, a couple years ago, they saw it: a brash, late-night infomercial from a personal injury attorney who was hunting for victims of transvaginal mesh surgery. It wasn't long before they were on the phone, making the same call women across the country have been making, and soon Betty found herself in the same situation: hoping the legal system would acknowledge what their doctors wouldn't.


When you get so old that the Lord lets you pee on yourself, Gynecare can help. That's the way Dr. Melvyn Anhalt explains it, anyway.

"God gave women three mechanisms to be dry," Anhalt said one day last month, testifying in a Dallas courtroom in one of many ongoing lawsuits against manufacturers of transvaginal mesh. Dressed in a crisp black suit with cropped white hair, Dr. Anhalt, in a thick Southern drawl, carefully explained how the female anatomy worked when all its mechanisms were functioning properly. As former head of the Incontinence Center at the Memorial Hermann-Memorial City Hospital in Houston, he understood those mechanisms well.

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9 comments
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debcny
debcny

Great article.  Thanks for sharing your very personal story.  It's sad that there are so many others who can relate all too well.  

drucilla1313
drucilla1313

I am a mesh victim.  Three weeks ago I had my AMS sling removed after three years of hellish misery.  Physically I am starting to feel human again, but recovering the damages to my quality of life, emotional state and financial losses will take a very long time. It is hard to put a dollar value on the life and time taken from me but it is all I can hope for.So this week we are told that American Medical Systems is settling on the 22,000 cases against them YAY!Right?NO, this is where they add insult to injury.The settlement offer is $830 million, sounds like a lot until you do the math. Across 22,000 cases that is only $37,000 each.Take off the 40% to the attorney and you have $22,000.NOW I AM ANGRY!Do they think we are sheep?That doesn’t begin to touch even the financial losses of the past three years let alone the physical and emotional trauma and suffering.This is an insult!My attorney says I will get a letter soon giving me the specifics for my settlement but I already doubt that the offer will be acceptable.I wasn’t really angry until now.

ozonelarryb
ozonelarryb

And doctors who swallow unquestioning the sales bullshit of ignorant nonprofessionals.

J_A_
J_A_

The health care industry is like any other - in the business of making money. Unfortunately we cannot blindly trust doctors to have our best interests as a priority. I feel terrible for these women.

lebowski300
lebowski300

What a weird mix of terrible genes and brazen unacknowledged ignorance.

The_Mesh_Warrior
The_Mesh_Warrior

@drucilla1313  I am so glad you found this article.  Please join our community where there are many, many other injured women- just like you who will give you support, validation and healing.  I hope you join us. God bless you, and I'm so so sorry for your injury.

TheCredibleHulk
TheCredibleHulk topcommenter

@J_A_  

It's the FDA and their shoddy oversight that we should be worried about in cases like these.

 
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