'I have tried to end my life': Hernia mesh patients overwhelmed by pain
Several women who have had hernias repaired with plastic surgical mesh say the subsequent pain they have endured has driven them to contemplate -- and sometimes even attempt -- suicide. Doctors, they add, have offered little in terms of solutions.
Francine Wright of Kanata, Ont. had an abdominal hernia repaired with plastic mesh in Aug. 2014. Six months later, she says she began experiencing abdominal pain that got progressively worse over time.
“It feels like a wound hasn’t healed and like a searing pain inside, like I am being ripped open on the inside,” the 61-year-old told CTV News. “A lot of days I’m in bed… I can’t function at all.”
That agony has lasted for years now, Wright says. Powerful painkillers have offered little relief.
“It has affected me in every way possible: socially, with my kids, my husband,” she explained. “I can’t plan things ahead of time because I never know what kind of shape I’m going to be in, what kind of pain I’m going to be in.”
Living with chronic pain has led her to consider suicide.
“I get days where I pray for the Lord to take me because I just cannot withstand the pain,” she said. “I just don’t know where to throw myself, the pain is so bad.”
Debbie Van Dyk of Ottawa experienced startlingly similar complications after undergoing a mesh hernia repair 12 years ago.
“I deal with pain daily,” the 48-year-old said. “As soon as I get up in the morning, I deal with pain. I can’t do anything.”
Van Dyk says she sometimes even finds pieces of plastic mesh poking through her skin.
“I saved them and took them to my family doctor,” she said. “He sent them away to be analyzed to find out what they were and he came back and he informed that it was pieces of the mesh my body was trying to push it out.”
The debilitating pain, Van Dyk says, has sent her into a spiral of depression.
“I have no life and I don’t want to be here anymore,” she said, choking back tears. “I have tried to end my life a few times -- quite a few times.”
Their stories are by no means unique. Across Canada, many others have undergone mesh repairs that have left them in chronic pain.
Seventy-five-year-old Lynda Plumb of Carleton Place, Ont. has been told by doctors that the plastic mesh she received for a hernia repair in 2007 cannot be removed due to potentially fatal complications. Offered no other solutions, she says she has felt pushed to the edge.
“I just wanted to die and I came home and I thought to myself, ‘Well, nobody is going to miss me,’” she told CTV News. “I mean, I just couldn't imagine keeping going on with this pain day in and day out.”
One day, Plumb found herself with a bottle of pills and a glass of wine in either hand.
“I thought, ‘Well this would be the end,’” she recalled. “I don’t know what it was, but something stopped me from doing it… It was a terrible moment in my life.”
Like Plumb, both Van Dyk and Wright say doctors have given them no answers or help.
“I would like to see more research,” Wright said. “I would also like to see people like myself who have these complications find out why -- why are we having these complications?”
A potential clue
While Health Canada figures show that about a dozen brands of hernia mesh have been recalled or removed from the Canadian market since 2000, some due to infections and perforations, studies also indicate that the majority of hernia mesh patients have no problems and that the mesh actually improves recovery and lowers hernia recurrence. Its use also continues to rise.
Although research into the matter remains limited, Dr. Jan Willem Cohen Tervaert, who serves as director of rheumatology at the University of Alberta’s medical school, believes he has uncovered a clue as to why some patients experience severe complications from surgical mesh while others do not.
“What we found is that actually most of the patients, there was 80 per cent did have pre-existent allergies and those allergies increased after the mesh implantation,” he said.
“You could say the immune system is in a way very aggressive and therefore it attacks the mesh more severely than in patients who do not have allergies.”
More research, Cohen Tervaert says, needs to be done quickly to ensure that others don’t suffer needlessly.
“The findings in my small study point in the direction that if you have preexisting allergies, you should be at least warned that there is a bigger chance of getting mesh complications,” he explained.
Hoping for answers
Cohen Tervaert’s hypothesis makes sense to Plumb, who experienced severe allergies as a teenager.
“I think it’s a very good theory,” Plumb said. “It would be nice if they could do an independent investigation and look into it and find out why we are all getting sick all the time and why others are not.”
Wright and Van Dyk, however, did not have preexisting allergies.
Wright was able to get her mesh removed, but says doctors used polypropylene sutures during the procedure -- the same plastic the mesh was made from -- and that she continues to experience severe pain. Wright now wonders if the plastic activated her immune system.
“I just want my life back,” she said. “And I don’t want anybody else going through what I’m going through.”
Van Dyk has joined a class-action lawsuit that was launched by London, Ont.-based Siskinds Law Firm.
“I am trying my best to hold on so that I get some satisfaction, I guess, that somebody is held liable for what they’ve done to me,” Van Dyk said. “I am trying my best to hang on but I’m getting very tired.”
With a report from CTV's medical affairs specialist Avis Favaro and producer Elizabeth St. Philip