Melbourne man Marc Russell says he lives in constant pain after having mesh for a hernia in his groin. (ABC News: Scott Jewell)
Pelvic mesh implants ‘one of the biggest medical scandals’ involving Australian women
Marc Russell has spent his life travelling the globe to surf some of the world’s biggest breaks and ride his motorbike through the most breathtaking landscapes.
But today the 42-year-old adventurer spends much of his time bedridden and needs a cane to get around.
All it took to ground this wandering spirit was a jammed truck door.
“I gave it my all and ended up popping a groin hernia,” he said.
Mr Russell was told he would need day surgery and would be able to return to work after a month.
But a year later and after being seen by more than 30 specialists, he lives in constant pain.
During the surgery doctors used surgical mesh to repair his hernia. Mr Russell said the product had left him crippled.
It is a similar product to those used in women to treat pelvic prolapses, which was the subject of a Senate inquiry and a national apology.
“The best way to describe it is, razor blades are in my groin,” Mr Russell said. “It’s like I’ve been doused in a flammable liquid and been lit on fire.”
Mr Russell has had to give up his job, and it has affected his sexual function and his relationships.
“I feel like I’m failing as a father, I don’t feel I’m the role model that I should be,” he said.
The Melbourne man is one of a growing number of men who have come forward with complications from mesh used in hernia surgeries.
What is a hernia?
- A hernia is when organs such as the intestines protrude through the muscles in front
- Untreated, the organs push forward through the hole and form a bulge
- About 40,000 Australians have surgical repairs for hernias each year and are more common in men
It comes after well-publicised problems with the use of surgical mesh and slings used to treat pelvic prolapse and incontinence in women.
In those cases, mesh was initially approved for use because of a belief in the medical community that the material had been successfully used for many years to treat hernias.
But Mr Russell estimates he has been in contact with up to 1,000 Australians who have suffered complications from having the product in hernia surgery.
He runs a Facebook group to support those who have been affected.
“Politicians, the medical fraternity — just need to wake up and realise this is real,” Mr Russell said. “The TGA [Therapeutic Goods Administration] really need to step up their game.”
Many men in pain are putting up with ‘new normal’
Mr Russell’s experience has been backed by the Health Issues Centre in Victoria, which has launched a national survey of patients’ experiences with medical devices.
It comes after the ABC partnered with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) to expose a series of flaws in the way medical devices are regulated in Australia and overseas.
Health Issues Centre chief executive Danny Vadasz said they had been contacted by more than 140 patients in less than two weeks and already clear patterns had emerged.
More than half of those who had been in touch had concerns with the use of mesh in hernia, bowel or general surgery.
And while women can also have hernias, Mr Vadasz said many of those getting in touch were men.
“There is a lot of men who’ve been suffering low to moderate pain since their hernia repair work who simply put up with a new normal in their lives,” he said.
Associate Professor Nabeel Ibrahim runs the Hernia Institute of Australia, a clinic specialising in hernias.
He said in many cases mesh drastically reduced the chances of hernias returning, whereas in the past other surgical techniques often failed.
“Australia-wide, we carry out, in the groin, approximately 50,000 [operations] a year. We hear only of a small number of unfortunate incidences,” he said.
“The big picture is a positive picture.”
But he said there had been problems with some polypropylene mesh products, with slow-growing infections a real risk associated with some procedures.
He also pointed to overdiagnosis and treatment of hernias as a contributing problem, saying many were not life-threatening and did not always require surgery.
“In most cases of hernia complications we really have to consider possible technical factors, diagnostic factors and maybe also patient factors,” he added.
‘I’ve lost another relationship because of this issue’
To date, many of the complaints about medical devices have been from women — about breast implants, transvaginal mesh and contraceptive implants.
Following the ABC and ICIJ investigation, the ABC has been contacted by a number of men who have had serious complications from devices.
Another patient struggling after his surgery is Perth man Alan Brown.
He got a penile implant after having his prostate removed due to aggressive cancer. But he says he now regrets that.
The 64-year-old said it would have been easier to deal with radical cancer treatment, than the side effects of losing his prostate.
The father-of-two experienced impotence after the initial cancer surgery.
“After losing a couple of relationships I thought [the device] was a good idea,” he explained.
But the product had given him mild incontinence and extreme pain during ejaculations.
“I spoke to the my urologist and he just kept saying, ‘Take two Panadol’. Lately I’ve lost another relationship because of this issue,” he said.
Mr Brown said, in hindsight, he would not have agreed to get the device.
“I think as men we tend not to talk about it, but I think it’s time we did,” he said.
Patients have had complications from devices like this one, used to treat impotence. (Supplied)
Sydney man Robert Bosetti has been left totally incontinent from a device that has failed.
The former electrician had prostate cancer four years ago and was left with mild incontinence.
After his initial treatment failed, his specialist recommended something called an “artificial sphincter”. It’s a device that allows patients to manually control their urination.
But Mr Bosetti said he had problems from the start.
“I ended up going to the emergency department,” he said.
The 67-year-old is now completely incontinent and has been advised to have a second device, but he has lost faith in the medical community.
“I believe their gadget failed,” he said. “I feel like they’re experimenting, if it doesn’t work they do another one and I’m the guinea pig.”
In a statement, the makers of the device, Boston Scientific, said the technology around its product had been available for 46 years.
“It is unfortunate that this patient had a negative experience. A recent study of more than 27,000 men who received the device showed that the device significantly and positively impacted quality of life,” it said.
TGA maintains it approves and monitors all devices
Other areas of concern the Health Issues Centre survey has already identified include joint replacements, contraceptive implants and devices used in obesity surgery.
“This is indicative of a significant failure in the quality and safety system,” Mr Vadasz said.
“In particular the TGA and its low barrier to allow devices into the market.”
The Therapeutic Goods Administration announced earlier this week all surgical mesh products had been reclassified to the highest risk category for devices.
This will make it harder for new products to get on the market, and once on shelves they would have to be more closely monitored.
The regulator maintains it approves and monitors all devices based on the potential risk versus benefit of the product.
“We do assess the clinical data, including clinical safety, on our medium and high risk devices,” the TGA’s deputy secretary Professor John Skerritt said.
Mr Vadasz said it did not mean everyone with mesh or a medical device should be concerned.
“We’re not saying implants generally are bad, but we can’t ignore the fact that in some circumstances they fail and that can be catastrophic.”