Australia investigates implants that left some women with 'rotting pelvises'

Linda Schulz had a pelvic mesh implant when her organs prolapsed but was in pain after the procedure.

Story highlights

  • Australian Senate releases report raising concerns about use of pelvic mesh implants
  • Patients have described implants as being "like a knife" cutting them up from the inside

(CNN)Like more than 100,000 Australian women, Linda Schulz had a pelvic mesh implant to treat complications from childbirth that resulted in her bowel and bladder prolapsing.

The mesh was meant to be a quick fix, but the aftermath was worse.
    Her right leg went numb almost immediately after the procedure, and after a few weeks the mesh was like a knife constantly cutting her up from the inside.
    "The mesh cut through my vagina wall and came through my skin," Schulz said. "Any movement, whether I moved my legs or not, felt like a serrated-edge knife was cutting me."
    In the last year, Schulz, 48, along with hundreds of women experiencing similar complications, petitioned the Australian Senate to investigate their use, hoping for an outright ban and recourse for past procedures.
    After a yearlong inquiry, the Senate released a report Wednesday, recommending that the implant be a "last resort" and raised concern that medical practitioners had not adequately informed their patients and "overused" the procedure "without considering alternative treatment options."
    The report went on to outline vital recommendations for improved treatment guidelines and medical training, prevention of financial inducements for practitioners, a registry of high-risk implantable devices and an audit of past procedures. It also outlined concern that it is not possible to identify accurately the number of women who have received transvaginal mesh implants in the country.
    "Women that have had those implants, who have those outcomes ... have been failed in a monumental way by the system and by certain people in the medical profession who they trusted," said Sen. Rachel Siewert when she introduced the report Wednesday to the Senate. "I hope that we never have to have another inquiry where we see such suffering from the witnesses."
    Senate involvement all started when Sen. Derryn Hinch heard stories such as Schulz's, and was moved to start an inquiry in February 2017.
    "I hope our report convinces them they have been listened to and more importantly they have been believed," Hinch said at the Senate meeting introducing the report.
    Hearings were held across Australia in 2017, interviewing both patients and mesh manufacturers. Hundreds wrote in to the Senate, sharing a range of stories about living with pain after the operation -- from not being able to walk, sit or drive to puncturing their partner during intercourse with a splinter that broke off the implant.
    Schulz said she hopes the report will go past recommendations into action, and she hopes no woman has to go through what she did: "It changes your whole life. You don't feel like a woman anymore. They just take everything in one fell swoop."

    'Horror stories' in consumer group's survey

    Clocking in at 20 minutes, the mesh implant is a quick fix aimed at repairing common complications from childbirth and menopause.
    The mesh is implanted to support weakened or damaged tissue to treat poor bladder control and organ prolapse. But the procedure can be risky because of the methods and materials used. According to various studies, complications can include organ perforation, infection, hemorrhage and sexual dysfunction.
    About half of women between 50 and 79 may have prolapse, according to the American Urogynecologic Society. When muscles and ligaments in the pelvic floor get too stretched, for reasons such as childbirth, they fail to hold up the pelvic organs: the bladder, rectum and uterus. The organs can drop into the cavity, making urination and sex painful.
    One in five women has incontinence, or poor bladder control, from childbirth, according to the Journal of Prenatal Medicine.
    Part of the problem in the past, Schulz said, is that there were no hard statistics and records of how many procedures are done and their effects.
    In April 2017, the Health Issues Centre -- an Australian consumer advocacy group -- conducted its own survey. After asking on Facebook for stories, it heard from 2,500 women in six weeks.
    The mesh that was removed from Linda Schulz after surgery.
    "We heard horror stories, lives that were completely destroyed," said Danny Vadasz, head of Health Issues Centre, who also wrote to the Senate, asking for reform. "We were shocked and barely believed something like this could happen in what we considered the world-class health system of Australia."
    The Australian health care system offers universal health care insurance, paid through taxes, as well as private insurance.
    Based on his survey, Vadasz estimates that in the past two decades, there have been 120,000 to 150,000 mesh implants in Australia, and around 70% of the stories his group heard involved a lack of fully informed consent. Many women, he said, were not even told that a mesh would be implanted into their bodies.

    'Mine was badly fitted'

    "As these devices were to be permanent, we are meant to live with rotting pelvises forever," said Justine Watson, a Sydney resident who submitted her mesh photos to the Senate as part of the inquiry and joined more than 700 Australian women last year in a suit against Johnson & Johnson over claims of flaws in its mesh devices.
    Justine Watson says doctors didn't believe she was in pain and referred her instead to psychiatrists.