Triathlete Samantha Sierwald-Smith suffers from pelvic organ prolapse after the birth of her baby daughter 2 years ago, since then she has been keen to break taboos that leave many women suffering in silence.
Here’s her story in her own words:
The Start of a Journey
I’ve always been fit and active and have a passion for long-distance running and triathlon. I was proud to have maintained my fitness during pregnancy and post partum and was keen to return to health and fitness post pregnancy modelling a healthy lifestyle to my new daughter. Wanting to do so safely, I consulted a women’s health physio early on and was pleased to hear things were recovering well. At around 3 months post partum, I went for a jog and suffered badly from leaking. A few days later, bang, something did not feel at all right down there – this horrible sensation of something heavy, like a weighted ball, dropping down into my vagina. I nervously googled and found details of ‘pelvic organ prolapse’, where one or more of your pelvic organs drop into the vaginal wall. This creates a bulge in the vagina and in severe cases the vaginal tissue drops out completely.
The Early Days
I started on a mental rollercoaster. I saw a doctor, who said I was fine and nothing was wrong but on follow up with another women’s health physio, I was diagnosed with a grade 2 bladder prolapse. Further to that, a follow-up with a uro-gynaecologist added both a bowel and uterine prolapse to boot. I worked with a physio to ‘correct’ my breathing, learn how to lift items to minimise further damage and avoided any impact sport. It felt like everything I did, inclusive of breathing, needed work and could make things worse so I became rigid and fearful of any movement. I felt scared to dance with or carry my daughter, let alone get back to my love of sport. Running and triathlon had been my lifeblood and stress release and my hopes of further competing felt dashed. While other mums went to buggyfit, played effortlessly with their kids in the park, my mood spiraled downward. Why me?
I didn’t want to leave the house. I forced myself out of bed each morning, stopped eating properly, plummeted 6kg and broke down in tears frequently. I was on a downward spiral into depression and anxiety. I felt isolated and alone. No-one else I knew was going through this or had gone through this. My visits to healthcare professionals often resulted in tears and I felt very let down and unsupported, with little hope for the future.
The Slow Road to Acceptance and Recovery
Recovery, or better put, improvement and acceptance continues to be a rollercoaster of ups and downs. After many doctor visits, I was eventually given oestrogen replacement to manage ‘vaginal atrophy’ that makes prolapse feel more prominent as everything is so dry and raw down there! I worked independently on my diet, helping me get back to a healthy weight and sorting out my digestion and constipation, which is one of the 2 worst factors for POP (constipation and coughing). I started some gentle yoga and pilates online programmes (albeit obsessively!), specific for post partum and safe for prolapse, to get back to moving. I researched and found other low-pressure fitness exercises that had proven successful for others, plus tips from experts in the post partum field. I also joined a great online Facebook Community with many like-minded people battling the same thing and learnt so much there from others. Things went up and down as I continued to breastfeed, but I had more relief from symptoms than in the early days. I continued with physio and pelvic floor exercises, which contributed to improved strength but continued to feel symptomatic and fearful of movement.
Nearly a year post initial diagnosis, I was put on medication for anxiety and depression, found an amazing physio with a fantastic can-do attitude, who encouraged me to run and move again safely and started to see a counsellor. I was also fitted for a pessary – a small device to support the fallen organs. All this was a major turning point for me. My mood improved and I felt more confident to start running again. My physio used chronic pain management techniques and got me over my fear of jumping and my obsession with constantly checking in with my symptoms. I also started to see the wood from the trees and use the parts of the post-natal programmes that worked for me rather than try and fit 3 hours of different exercises into my day! A nutritionist also helped to further support my digestion.
Renewed Strength and Mission
It’s been nearly a year since that major turning point and I still have challenging days when I turn to stone and want to close the door on life, but I also have a lot of better days and competed in my first sprint triathlon with no leaking which had me shed tears as I crossed the finish line with my daughter and husband. I carry my 13kg little girl now without the pessary and I don’t worry so much about my prolapse worsening.
Time is indeed a great healer but what I’ve learnt is that managing prolapse isn’t just about ‘kegels’ or physiotherapy. It’s about your mental health, your nutrition, your mindset, whole body, everyday movements and posture, not being afraid, education and a knowledge of your own body (not what people tell you but what YOU feel) and it’s about having the right support network and confidence to get back to what you love, whatever that may be and living your life. Sadly, this message isn’t yet clear and the medical profession doesn’t have all the answers or necessary patient support, so it’s down to the individual to do the research and find a way through. To this end, I have now started my own Instagram and Facebook pages to try and raise awareness and share what I have learnt on this journey so, with any luck, others can prevent and better manage their own prolapse early on.