‘My breast implant almost killed me’
WARNING: Graphic images
I WAS a loud and bubbly teenager, but I used my extroverted personality to hide the fact that physically, I had no confidence. At puberty, my right breast grew into a D-cup, while my left breast didn't develop at all, so my bust was severely asymmetric. Also, my areola didn't develop normally. In truth, I felt like a freak.
I managed to get through my teens by avoiding having serious boyfriends, and never changing in front of my friends. The only people that knew my predicament were my parents. By the time I was 18 in 2006, I believed the only way I could move into adult life and become a confident woman was to undergo breast enhancement surgery.
I was living in Darwin, so I found an esteemed, experienced surgeon in Perth. After the surgery, I developed a horrific infection as I'd suddenly become allergic to the Elastoplast in the bandages. Three layers of skin peeled off my breasts, so I looked like a burns victim.
In 2007, I had to go back to Perth to have revision surgery on my areola. Then I thought the worst was over. I loved my new bust. It was the first time I could truly feel comfortable physically, not just with a partner, but also wearing clothes I'd never had the confidence to wear.
Then it got worse
By 2013, I had two children with my husband Lance. I was at a party when a friend looked at my chest and said, "Where has your cleavage gone?" I glanced down and noticed that my left breast had somehow shifted beneath my armpit. On examination, scarily, I found two lumps. After a mammogram, I was advised there were further complications.
I immediately contacted my surgeon in Perth. He suspected a Capsular contracture, which happens when your body rejects the implant and reacts by creating a capsule of scar tissue that tightens around it causing multiple symptoms, as well as ruining the implant. The surgeon said I would need exploratory surgery to either adjust the position of the capsule without removing it or the implant, or remove and replace the implant altogether. He informed me he'd have new implants on standby for this eventuality.
I only had to pay the hospital excess and flights this time. After surgery, I was informed the surgeon had replaced my implant, as a complication had been found in my left breast and he had to do a capsulectomy. However, unbeknown to me, he'd reinserted the old implant and sent the new ones back to the manufacturer. The same old implant that my body had already rejected, even though manufacturer's policy states that implants should only be used once and not be reused after complications.
It took me another five years of excruciating ill health, where I was driven to the brink of suicide, until I finally found out what had happened.
Doctors thought I was a hypochondriac
I started to get sick six months later, but I didn't connect it to my breast operation. There was a litany of things wrong with me. Firstly, the vision in my right eye became blurry. When my third child was born she was born with an unusually huge placenta.
In June 2015, I was diagnosed with a small benign brain tumour. However, my surgeon said he did not believe it was the cause of my symptoms. I underwent my first craniotomy in August 2015 followed by my second in December 2015. Between those surgeries, I had pneumonia where I was hospitalised for five days.
In January 2016, I suffered short term memory loss and neurological and optical changes. My eyesight deteriorated further to the point that I couldn't tolerate light. I've had severe back problems, headaches and severe anxiety that kept me housebound. The final straw was when the whole left side and my face started to tingle in October, 2017 and I practically lost capacity to use this side of my body.
However, doctors brushed me off. I was made to feel as if I was a hypochondriac, but I knew myself, and I knew my body, something wasn't right. Finally, in April 2018. I found a new young GP. Through my tears, I told him I needed him to listen to me. "I'm not crazy, there is something wrong with me," I said.
I convinced him I needed an MRI on my spine. Two days later, I was diagnosed with a cyst in my spinal cord. The specialist doctors again said it was a secondary condition and then they told me I'd lost 30 per cent of strength on my left side, but they couldn't understand why.
Why I turned into a medical detective
Then I saw a report on the television program Sunday Night about Breast Implant Illness. It wasn't the first time I'd heard about it. A friend had suggested it could be the cause of my ill health. However, I didn't believe a breast implant could cause me to be so sick necrologically, optically, and compromise my entire immune system from my muscles, nerves to my joints. However, all the symptoms the women described, I was experiencing.
I asked my doctor for a breast scan and found out my left implant was possibly ruptured. When I went to see a new surgeon he questioned as to whether the previous surgeon had used the same implant in the repair surgery? I said no way; he couldn't have. On my Medicare report, there had been a claim for removal and replacement of a breast prosthetic, which had made me believe it had been removed and replaced.
But I could see it in his face that he knew that wasn't the case. I requested all my medical records from the hospital in Perth be sent through to my GP. On the prosthesis page, it showed my implant was intact and had been reinserted and repositioned, not replaced.
I'll never know why the surgeon did this. I put in a complaint to the West Australia Health Board in July 2018, only to find out in September 2018 that the surgeon had since passed away.
His decision nearly cost me my marriage; my youngest child had never known her mummy to be anything other than unwell, and if it wasn't for my husband, my children and my loved ones I don't think I would have survived this journey.
Just this month I had a six-hour operation for full reconstructive surgery and implant removal without replacement. My left implant had a very dark yellowish orange colour, a thick capsule around it and a large dint with muck on the shell. My right implant was discoloured and I had capsular contracture. I have not yet received my biopsy results to know what caused them to look like this.
Despite the pain and swelling from the operation, almost immediately, I felt better. The symptoms that plagued me have gradually started to disappear. The colour in my face is undeniable, my eyes are back to normal, and I no longer suffer from the debilitating headaches. I can walk unhindered and have a new energy that I haven't had in years.
I'm sharing my story because I want to warn women with implants to check their surgical records, get their implants checked regularly and those thinking about implants to know the risks. There are more natural approaches like a breast lift or fat transfer.
Now, I hope to give my family the five years back they lost when I was ill, by being the most hands-on, happiest mother and wife that I can be.
News.com.au has contacted the Australian Society of Plastic Surgeons and the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency for comment.