For years, medical horror stories have made their way into the public eye. Jean Bell speaks to one woman about her six-year nightmare, as the Ministry of Health makes moves to right the wrongs caused by a deceptively harmless device.
Christina Lotz glares at the shrivelled band of plastic mesh, safely contained in a surgical jar, that made her life a living hell for six years.
The ''sling'' - which looks like electric fencing wire for enclosing livestock - was implanted in the 65-year-old Pongakawa registered mechanic's pelvic area to cure her urinary incontinence.
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Instead of making her life easier, Lotz says managing the complications has sucked up her "whole pension", caused her extreme pain and left her suicidal with her personal and professional life in tatters.
"[I felt like] a totally disabled person . . . My whole life was gone. It was all pain and no sleep."
Lotz was one of more than 600 people who shared their experience through a Ministry of Health Restorative Health panel this year. She found speaking about her experience uncomfortable but felt she had a responsibility to speak up on behalf of other sufferers.
Lotz, an immigrant from Germany, said she had suffered from urinary incontinence since having her last child in 1993.
She tried numerous remedies before being referred to Tauranga Hospital where she was told she needed the sling.
Lotz claims she was not made aware of the possible complications. She said an informational pamphlet she was given featured an illustration of a bladder sitting in a hammock slung between two palm trees.
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"It looked so easy-peasy."
The sling was implanted and immediately, she was in pain and was not able to urinate, but she was released from the hospital with a catheter.
She says she was told the pain would go away and she would be "fine".
"But it wasn't," she said. "It's the worse pain you can imagine. It's so bad you start to faint."
The pain continued but the catheter was removed during a doctor's visit.
Again, she had "horrible retention" so she returned to the hospital and a catheter was put in again.
"Your area down there is so full it's like you're going to explode."
This catheter was removed a few days later. But yet again, she was unable to urinate and she ended up crawling into Accident and Emergency.
"I was on all-fours trying to breathe . . . it was the only position that I could handle that pain."
She said it was "shocking" what came out when she finally could go to the toilet with a catheter.
Normally, she would have 400ml of liquid in her bladder but the first time she had retention, she was holding about 1400ml and the second time about 1600ml.
She was shown how to "self-catheterise" with a tap device that allowed her to empty her bladder.
She sought help at Tauranga Hospital but said she felt like staff regarded her as a "hysterical woman who was just attention-seeking".
She said they gave her medication and sent her on her way.
The month after it was put in, she asked about having the sling removed and was told it was not possible.
Lotz lived with the sling for six years, filled with "ongoing pain and bladder infections". She said she was lucky she had her own business and a supportive husband and family.
She said she was unable to work and did not have a good night's sleep until the sling was removed due to the pain and needing to use the toilet every 15 minutes.
"My worst nightmare was getting in a traffic jam and not finding a place where I can go to a toilet."
She said her enjoyable sexual relationship with her husband became "miserable".
She broke down during a visit to her doctor.
That year, her daughter discovered support group Mesh Down Under and she learned of Wellington-based former gynaecologist Dr Hanifa Koya.
Finally, her sling was removed by Koya.
Aside from having some trouble walking and suffering some pain in her abdomen at times, she had now recovered.
Koya said most complaints - especially from women - were mostly underplayed or disregarded. She said many patients did not know the possible side effects and could not give informed consent.
Mesh Down Under co-founder Patricia Sullivan said the advocacy group had been calling for easier access to ACC payments, mesh registers with wraparound support, upskilling of surgeons and emotional support for sufferers for several years.
Ministry of Health chief medical officer Dr Andrew Simpson said the ministry was aware of the complications a significant number of people had suffered due to surgical mesh.
Simpson said the ministry had already taken steps to limit the use of surgical mesh and improve patient safety.
This included the recent Restorative Health process, removal of single incision mini-sling products for the treatment of stress urinary incontinence, and working on the draft Therapeutics Products Bill, which proposed that surgical mesh would be subject to greater regulatory control.
The Bay of Plenty District Health Board has been approached for comment. A spokeswoman said the DHB had no record of Lotz formally raising her concerns.
Lotz said she was not aware she could raise a complaint with the DHB but she did report a medical device adverse event to Medsafe after the sling was fitted.
The number of patients who had surgical mesh implants or procedures in the Bay of Plenty in 2018
Source: Bay of Plenty District Health Board
Where to get help:
• Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
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• Samaritans 0800 726 666
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