‘Childbirth left me with life-changing injuries – it took 20 years to get my freedom back'

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A mum who suffered an injury during childbirth with catastrophic lasting effects has shared how she got her life back – after being largely housebound with chronic incontinence.

What midwives originally thought was a minor perineal tear from labour turned out to be more significant, causing horrendous repercussions for Jo Prance that would last for two decades after welcoming her son.

The now 48-year-old from Surrey has battled stress urinary incontinence, faecal incontinence, prolapse and severe pelvic pain.

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To date, she’s had 19 operations to try and tackle her symptoms, including getting a stoma and having a mesh sling inserted. She’s also had to work hard to improve and maintainher pelvic floor health, with the help of training devices like femfit.

Jo PranceJo Prance
Jo Prance

Having felt “dictated by access to toilets” for the last 20 years, Jo now finally feels free and is sharing her story to lift the stigma around incontinence.

“[After the birth], I was originally told I had a second-degree perineal tear and that it was repaired,” said the fitness consultant.

“But it later transpired that it was more significant and a year after birth I started having issues with stress urinary incontinence. I’ve been through two decades of operations, surgeries and treatments, and I still have to constantly keep on top of my pelvic floor.

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“It’s been a gruelling journey – physically challenging and mentally exhausting. The personal toll of the injury has been immense.”

In 2000, Jo had a mesh sling inserted to support her bladder – which helped, for a time – but left her with pelvic pain that became chronic. On top of this, she started suffering with the aforementioned faecal incontinence.

Jo said: “The problems escalated; I tried numerous medications and treatments for the incontinence, and had to irrigate my bowels daily. I also had prolapses as a result of the childbirth injury and had a series of operations to try and fix this.

“My son has pretty much grown up alongside these issues being dealt with, and me needing access to bathrooms. On the school run I’d have to stop various times [to use the bathroom].

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“At work, I might choose not to eat or drink some days because I was worried about having a problem with my bowel. It impacted every area of my life and occupied my every move. Toilets became everything and I was carrying around changing kit for myself, as well as my child.”

Jo was even left struggling to walk, which she says was from the pain the mesh sling left her in.

She said: “My body was a mess. There was a nerve in my leg that was affected by the mesh. I had a couple of episodes of my leg not working properly before I sought private help.

“16 years after the mesh was inserted, I had it removed privately, which finally resolved the chronic pain.”

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Between the leg issue and the prolapses, Jo was in enough pain that she was forced to leave her fitness job at the NHS. It wasn’t until she opted to have a colostomy in 2019 – 21 years after giving birth – that she started to get her life back, and dived back into fitness.

Jo said: “It was a turning point for me as it gave me back my freedom. I’m a very fit and active person, and each time I’ve had an operation I’ve had to start over again. I feel I have been rebuilt in a way.”

To aid in her efforts, Jo has been using femfit, a pelvic floor training device which consists of a thin, flexible silicone sensor capable of visualising the activation of the pelvic floor muscles.

The sensor, created by Junofem, is temporarily inserted into the vagina for the duration of the pelvic floor exercising session – typically around 10-15 minutes.

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A row of tiny pressure sensors located inside measure the strength of contraction of the user’s pelvic floor muscles, while simultaneously measuring abdominal pressure.

This information is transmitted wirelessly to a bespoke app on a user’s smartphone to provide real-time feedback guiding correct technique.

Jo said: “Surgery doesn’t always give you the solution you are looking for and they don’t always last for decades. I’ve had a lot of surgeries and with the pelvic floor maintenance I now do, I’m trying to mitigate the need for any more in the future.

“I found femfit earlier this year, so I was already familiar with pelvic floor training and had used various devices, but this has greater sensitivity and is much slimmer. It’s a great device – especially for someone who has a basic understanding of pelvic floor health, as it builds on that knowledge.”

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Jo’s health has now improved to the point where she is currently preparing to climb Mount Kilimanjaro next year, alongside 19 other women – nine of whom also have stomas.

The group is fundraising for charity Chameleon Buddies, who work with Kenyan women and girls with stomas following childbirth injuries. To mark 25 years since the original injury, Jo has also started a challenge to try 25 new things over the course of the year to “start over again”.

She said: “I spent years keeping myself fit but not being able to put myself in the positions which I now can, because I’d need to go to the toilet.

“A swimming club would have been impossible because it would have been dictated by access to toilets. My health is the best it’s been in a long time. Six weeks after having my stoma fitted, I was back in the pool, and I’ve since completed my yoga teacher training too.

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“I’m now picking up where my life was on pause for so long. It’s important to me to share my story and help raise awareness because people just don’t talk about these things. I want people facing these issues not to hide away and to seek help.”

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