HARPER’S MAGAZINE – March 2021 Issue – By Trudy Lieberman
For years, Michael Ransford had known he would need surgery for his umbilical hernia. “People said if it ruptured, it could kill me,” the sixty-year-old farmer told me. The pain from a second hernia, on his right testicle, sent him “through the roof.” In 2016, shortly before Christmas, Ransford had an operation to repair both at Columbia Memorial Hospital, near his home in Ghent, New York.
In a postsurgical report, Ransford’s doctor, Gary Pearlstein, noted that he had repaired both hernias with polypropylene mesh, a type of synthetic netting that is commonly used in such surgeries. Pearlstein used an oval mesh patch on the testicular hernia and a circular mesh patch on the umbilical hernia. The hospital’s records identify the circular mesh as the Proceed Ventral Patch, a device consisting of multiple layers of material, produced by Ethicon, a subsidiary of Johnson and Johnson. The mesh provided “a nice solid repair,” Pearlstein wrote.
Meanwhile, complaints about hernia mesh are stacking up in the FDA’s MAUDE database, where device manufacturers are required to report malfunctions, serious injuries, and deaths. Doctors don’t have an obligation to report such incidents, but many of them, along with patients’ lawyers, are filing complaints, according to Madris Kinard, CEO of Device Events, a firm that reports on recalls and medical devices. Kinard told me that there had been a “drastic spike in hernia mesh cases reported since 2017.” That year, there were 3,149 complaints; in 2020, there were 13,942. Ten years ago, the agency’s Office of the Inspector General estimated that only 14 percent of adverse events caused by devices are ever reported to the FDA. Kinard said this suggests that the number of adverse events linked to hernia mesh is much higher than current statistics show.