‘You will be back on your feet within a couple of days.’
For Port Pirie mother of three Kim Blieschke, her doctor’s words were a relief.
The year was 2006. The young mother of three had given birth to her third child, Ash, a beautiful baby boy five years earlier.
Kim’s joy was overwhelming; her path to motherhood had been anything but easy.
Of her three labours, two went for more than 24 hours, while Ash tipped the scales at 4.5 kilograms (10 pounds).
She had suffered a prolapse of the uterus, bowel and bladder – a common occurrence for mothers who have challenging labours – since 2001 and decided to fix the issue.
Her gynecologist recommended a new ‘gold-standard’ procedure – a transvaginal mesh implant surgery called a ‘Prolift’.
She agreed to the surgery, trusting the doctor and favouring the short recovery time.
As it turned out, her prolapse was only the beginning of her problems.
“I knew from the minute that I woke up from the operation that something wasn’t right,” Kim said.
She was told her operation was only going to take an hour. Two hours later, she awoke in agony.
Laying in recovery for six hours, nurses were unable to control her excruciating pain.
Something had gone horribly wrong, but it took time for Kim to realise the extent of the problem.
“The next day I found that I had great hand-sized bruises on my buttocks,” she said.
“When I asked what they were from, the doctor said to me that they were from giant needles that they push through your muscles to implant the mesh.
“I was never told anything about that before the surgery.”
The ‘Prolift’ surgery and technology was new to the Australian market, with women like Kim promised a quick and easy fix to prolapse, incontinence and other vaginal damage issues.
Kim described the mesh as a “great big shade-sail” which sits above the vagina to support the internal muscles and organs from falling down.
After pushing through bouts of pain for three months after the surgery, she was forced to visit her GP.
Her situation only got worse.
Her body had begun to reject the mesh, treating it as a foreign body. Her auto-immune system was attacking the implant.
“My GP examined me and found that the mesh had begun to erode from the side of my vagina,” she said.
“I had necrotic flesh. The prolapse impacted my life, but nowhere near as much as the mesh implant surgery.”
Four minor surgeries without anesthetic were undertaken to cut the mesh but each had little impact on her pain.
She went on to have another 10 major surgeries between 2007 and 2015 in Australia to try and remove the mesh without success.
Painkillers were futile as she tried to control her almost indescribable pain.
“The pain went on, and on, and on … it was like a deep nerve-burning pain,” she said.
“The mesh had adhered into my bowel, bladder, rectum, encroached on my nerves.
“I was told by four surgeons that the only way I could get the implant out was if I removed my bowel or bladder.
“If I couldn’t get this mesh out, I was going to be bed-ridden.”
Kim said no surgeon in Australia knew how to remove the mesh completely.
In desperation, she looked overseas and found a doctor in St. Louis, Missouri, who claimed to know how to remove the implant.
After substantial remote correspondence, she journeyed to the United States to have the mesh removed.
The upfront cost, excluding the surgery, was $50,000.
In the 11 years since her initial surgery, Kim said she had spent “hundreds of thousands of dollars” on surgeries, travel, pain medication and lost work.
She suffers painful reminders of her surgery each day.
“I have permanent nerve damage in my hip and leg, no feeling in my two little toes … there are days when I can’t physically get out of bed because I have so much pain,” she said.
“I used to ride bikes, swim … I can’t do anything like that any more.
“It causes painful sex, to the point where you can’t have sex.
“I have a pelvic floor that is destroyed, I am all but incontinent.
“There are women whose marriages have disintegrated because there is only so much people can take.”
In spite of her situation, she was determined to tell her story to support and protect other women suffering similar struggles.
“For years I thought I was the only one that this had happened to,” she said.
“I have been told many times that I am crazy and that I don’t have pain. I know my body and I know what pain is.
“I am strong but there are some days when I am just in tears.
“I am angry, but that doesn’t get you anywhere and that is why I am speaking out.”
In 2013, during the midst of her health crisis, she lobbied governments across the country for changes to the use of pelvic mesh implants without success.
It was only in 2016 when she flew to Melbourne to lobby federal Senator Derryn Hinch that she had a breakthrough.
She said the controversial senator was crucial in instigating a federal Senate inquiry, which is seeking to understand the extent of the technology’s use in Australia.
No records of Australian mesh implant procedures have been kept.
The Australian Government’s Therapeutic Goods Administration only updated their list of potential side-effects for surgical mesh complications in August last year.
The mother of three continues to support women across the country by managing a Facebook group dedicated to offering help to those suffering from mesh implant complications.
Her story was also one of many submitted to the Senate inquiry and the 700-strong class-action against Johnson & Johnson. She nominated herself to be called as a witness to both hearings.
She hoped to attend the class-action hearing in Sydney this week, but admitted it would be challenging.
“I have spoken to a few women who were over there last week, and some of them where aghast at some of the evidence that was coming out,” she said.
She had a simple wish for the outcomes of the class-action and Senate inquiry.
“I hope it is banned, hope they put up big warnings about this stuff,” she said.
“There is no way any amount of money could change what has happened to me in my life.
“It has cut me and a lot of other women down in the prime of our lives.”