In 2015, Kath Sansom was the “ridiculously superfit mother of two adult daughters”. She did high-board diving, mountain biking, swimming and boxing. She had started to have a few “embarrassing leaks” while exercising, so Sansom did what many women do in her situation: she went to her GP, who referred her for transvaginal tape surgery, in which a small piece of mesh is fitted around the urethra to prevent incontinence.
“I assumed it was a bit like a coil,” says Sansom, 54, a PR manager from Cambridgeshire, “and if I didn’t get on with it, I could have it taken out. I had no idea it was permanent.”
When Sansom awoke from her surgery, she was in pain, but expected it to settle down. “But the pain got worse,” she recalls. “It frightened me. I have good pain tolerance but I’d never experienced pain like it. It was like someone had punched down my legs. My groin burned. I could barely take my dog for a walk.”
Sansom started researching and learned that the procedure had been suspended in Scotland since 2014, after concerns over side-effects. “I felt so stupid,” she says, “that I’d gone for surgery and not Googled it beforehand. I trusted my doctor.” She decided to raise awareness of the possible side-effects of the procedure and founded Sling the Mesh in June 2015. Within days she had 20 members; now there are 9,400.
Everyone in the group has been devastated by mesh. “Seven out of 10 women have lost their sex lives,” says Sansom. “A quarter are suicidal. The devastation on the page is so awful.” She starts to cry, explaining the desperation she sees on a regular basis. Sansom had her mesh removed in 2016, but there’s a limit to what surgeons can do. “It’s like picking chewing gum out of matted hair,” she says. “You can never guarantee full removal. No one goes back to what they were. I’m living a new normal. But I feel lucky. I have it better than many other women.”
The group is a safe space for women to find community. “Many have limited mobility because of the mesh,” Sansom says, “they can be isolated. Here they can get support from people who understand them, people who care. They don’t have to explain themselves, as everyone gets it. That’s priceless.”
Some struggle to get medical professionals to take their persistent pain seriously. “Their doctors gaslight them,” Sansom says. “By the time they come to the page they’re shadows of their former selves. But when they connect with others they realise they aren’t being weak; they just haven’t been given proper treatment.”
“Kath is a lone parent and has worked tirelessly on this campaign for the past seven years,” says her friend Liz Lace. “She has made huge achievements. She has helped women access the removal of the mesh and provided much-needed information.”
It can be exhausting: Sansom is up at 4am most days, trying to get in a few hours’ work on the campaign before starting her day job. “There are times when I think there’s no way I can carry on,” she says. “It’s tough campaigning when you’re in pain and juggling a full-time job. But then I look at the support on the page. There’s no way I can take the network away. There are messages all the time saying, ‘Thank God for this group. It’s the only thing keeping me going.’ That means everything to me.”
Sansom’s efforts have paid off. She helped lobby for Baroness Cumberlege’s 2020 review of pelvic mesh procedures, which concluded that the mesh “has caused significant physical harm” and urged reform of the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, to ensure it gets better at responding to adverse health effects. The next year the government apologised to the women affected, and set up specialist services for them. Vaginal mesh implants were paused in the UK in 2018, and are now only used in exceptional circumstances.
“There’s a nice sense of achievement in feeling you’ve helped people,” Sansom says, and she starts crying again. “I don’t always cry!” she says.
When asked about her Guardian angel treat, Sansom requests a day of well-deserved rest. She and her friend Kim enjoy a spa day courtesy of Whatley Manor hotel & spa in the Cotswolds. The two have been friends for decades and it was an opportunity for them to spend quality time together.
“It’s so difficult to stop and spend proper time with friends,” says Sansom. They turned up at the spa wearing the same striped top and had a good laugh about it. “I’ve been to lots of spa days,” Sansom says, “but this location was stunning. And the floatation tank! How do I describe a floatation tank? Incredible. Like floating on a cloud.” Post-slumber on a pillowy cloud, Sansom returns to her activism, recharged and refreshed.
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