Emy Mignone passed through a Valencia operating theater in 2006 to augment and lift her bosom. Ten months earlier she had given birth to a son and she had developed something of a complex that her breasts had been left flaccid as a result. Mignone, a 40-year-old of Italian descent, approached one of the most famous plastic surgery clinics in Valencia to carry out the operation. She paid more than 6,000 euros for the procedure and for the silicone breast implants, manufactured by French company Poly Implant Prothese (PIP).
"They told me they were the best available on the market," Mignone says. Shortly after the operation she began to feel unwell. She had a fever and pain in her chest and in her arms. "A pain that spread round to my back," she says. She was given medication, which she subsequently took for more than four years.
In January 2011 while in the shower, Mignone discovered a lump on her breast. She was referred to a specialist for ultrasound scans, which showed her implant had ruptured and needed to be removed urgently. She is one of between 8,000 and 12,000 women who, according to the Spanish Society of Esthetic and Reparatory Surgery (Secpre), carry silicone gel implants manufactured by PIP, although the Health Ministry states it is difficult to give an exact figure.
Implants made by the French firm were withdrawn from the market in May 2010 after a health alert in the Gallic country, when it was discovered that some of the synthetics had been made with industrial grade silicone, which is not suitable for such use but is 10 times cheaper than the medical grade version the company claimed to have used and which has been put through stringent safety tests.
Now, more than a year later, France has called for all women in the country carrying PIP prosthetics to go under the knife again to have them removed. Of the around 300,000 implants sold worldwide, more than half were destined for South America. French and Venezuelan authorities have promised to meet the costs of new operations for those affected, while Spain has said it will pay to reverse operations that were non-esthetic in origin.
The Spanish government announced on Tuesday that as well as women who underwent mastectomies on the public system, those who had private operations will also be reviewed. Secretary of state for health, Pilar Farjas, and Health Minister Ana Mato held a press conference to give an update on the PIP scandal. According to Farjas, all the women who had public system mastectomies "have been attended to and are now being treated within the public healthcare system."
Secpre has backed the ministry's advice, stating there is no cancer risk from the implants but advising constant checks with plastic surgeons "for preventive or non-urgent substitution."
"The authorities that permit the sale of these defective implants should now answer legally and economically for the damage caused," says Eva Giménez. The 37-year-old Valencia resident - who had her silicone implants removed a year ago - and other women for whom the Poly Implant Prothese (PIP)-manufactured implants have caused a series of problems have formed an association to sue those who operated on them using the defective prostheses.
"From the health service watchdog to the surgeons. They must all answer," adds Giménez, who, like fellow Spanish victim Emy Mignone, thought she had paid for a reputable service: "They did not carry out my procedure in a garage but in a clinic of supposed prestige and now I'm paying for it with my health."
Giménez had a breast-enlargement operation in 2007. Some 15 days later a nightmare of pains, infections and other after effects began that continue today. In November 2010 the same surgeon who implanted the prostheses had to remove them urgently. "He said they had broken eight months earlier but until then, despite my going to see him a thousand times, he never mentioned the health alert over the ruptures," says Giménez, who had to pay for the operation herself.
However, Giménez's immune system had been so compromised by the initial implants that her body rejected the second set. These also had to be removed. Until a few months ago, when Giménez had more or less recovered but was still psychologically affected, it was not possible to reconstruct her chest. On this final occasion, she placed herself in the hands of the surgeon Jaume Serra, a reputed doctor, a member of the Spanish Society of Esthetic and Reparatory Surgery, and one of the most vocal critics of the health system's handling of the scandal.
Serra had alerted the health authorities at the beginning of 2010 that the PIP implants were causing a lot of problems through ruptures. He put it in writing several times to the regional health authority in Valencia and to the Health Ministry. "Nobody did anything. Neither are there any warnings within the system about the PIP implants, which is very strange, because the cases are there to be seen," Serra says. The doctor says the ministry did nothing at the time, and only recommended women seek check-ups after the health alert in France. "A recommendation that many are not aware of today because their surgeons haven't told them," he adds.
Lola G. G. feels unprotected. She had implants in 2001 due to a shyness complex and ended up with health problems including infections and cysts. "I've been through hell. If the health system's safety and notification system had worked as it should, we could have avoided this suffering. They said everything was fine, but our bodies were destroyed inside. Somebody should answer for this."