Eleven years ago, Justine Watson was working as a psychotherapist. She was married, caring for two sons with special needs (aged 10 and 16), living a sometimes stressful but rewarding and active life. Since her boys’ births, she’d had some incontinence – she peed when she laughed and wore a pad to the gym – but she was coping. Then her world came tumbling down.
“I had my 40th birthday in 2010 with my girlfriends in Bali,” she tells The Weekly. One night, she wet her pants (again) and her girlfriends said, “You know there’s a surgery for that.”
Back in Australia, Justine looked into it. She saw two specialists. The first scared her off. The second said, “Don’t worry, sweetie. You’ll be absolutely fine.” And she trusted him.
She remembers that consultation clearly: “He didn’t say he would insert a medical device that, once it’s in, can’t come out again; he didn’t say it’s made from polypropylene, that it causes inflammation, that scar tissue will form around it, that it will become part of your body and if your body rejects it, you are going to be in a hell of a lot of trouble. He said none of that.”
So Justine went ahead with what was supposed to be a very simple, 20-minute operation. “He said, ‘This is going to change your life’,” she remembers. “And it did, but not in the way he told me.”
Today Justine appears strong, self-possessed and determined. We meet in a busy Sydney cafe but she spends much of her life in Bali, and she looks like a pretty typical Bali mum – dressed in turquoise and white cotton, silver bangles, jeans and sandals. We sit and talk for an hour-anda-half, which is an extraordinary thing given that just two years ago, Justine couldn’t have sat still for half that time without being overwhelmed by pain. Justine is one of tens of thousands of Australian women permanently injured by pelvic mesh implants.
Pelvic or trans-vaginal mesh is a net-like fabric most commonly made from polypropylene, which is a thermoplastic polymer resin that’s also used to make all manner of everyday objects from car parts and outdoor furniture to bottle tops and the blue tapes that hold whitegoods closed in transit. As a surgical mesh, it can be made into a sling, a ribbon, a tape or what manufacturers call a hammock. It is inserted into the pelvic cavity (either via the vagina or through abdominal surgery) to support weakened, prolapsed or damaged organs, or to repair tissues. The mesh is designed as a trellis for natural tissue, so scar tissue grows around and through the mesh to help support the weakened organs. It sounds simple but in too many instances the complications have been lifelong and devastating.
Justine’s friend came to collect her after the surgery. “I vomited all over the car,” she recalls. “It was green bile. I got home and I felt ghastly. I remember crawling up my stairs and I just put myself to bed with Nurofen. It was a 40-degree day and I remember crawling back down the stairs later to get water. I was so sick and in so much pain I couldn’t stand, and that was the beginning of it.”
It was evident right away that Justine’s incontinence hadn’t been remedied, and she was in constant pain. “It was this dull pain that kept rolling over, and I was feeling really tired,” she says. “It was slow and gradual, and it kept getting worse … Losing my life didn’t happen all at once. It was this slow burn.”
The pain put added stress on her relationships and her ability to work. In 2011, with her life feeling as if it was in tatters, Justine relocated to Bali. She set up her practice there and tried to move on, but the complications were snowballing.
“By 2013,” she recalls, “I was in and out of hospital with all kinds of infections – chest infections, stomach infections, urinary tract infections. I was getting more and more unwell. I’d be really sick for two or three months and then I might have a month where I wasn’t feeling so bad. I was barely working and I had more antibiotics than hot dinners, which frightened me because I knew that, if I had too many antibiotics, I could become resistant. Then it’s sepsis and death.”
By 2015, Justine was in constant pain. She had four clients left, whom she saw remotely so she could stay in bed in her pyjamas. Her sons had moved permanently to live with their father because she could no longer care for them and her marriage was floundering. A year later, she tried to end her life.
“I reached out to so many doctors, saying, ‘I don’t know what’s wrong with me, but I feel like I’m dying’. And they kept telling me there was nothing wrong, that it was all in my head,” she says.
In desperation, she returned to the surgeon who had initially operated on her, and she says: “He looked so uncomfortable. I’m sure that inside his head, he was going, ‘Oh my God, it’s one of them’. He couldn’t get me out of that office fast enough.”
He did, however, refer Justine to a colleague who, the following day, gave her a series of scans and tests. He could see the problem straight away. He told her that the mesh, which was supposed to be supporting her urethra, had migrated and was skewering it. Mesh was also embedded in her bladder.
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