Many are willing to pay the price and go under the knife to fix their insecurities, including Paula Blades. She chose breast augmentation. Then, after years of severe mystery illnesses, it turns out the very thing she needed to feel good about herself was killing her.
Down a quiet Gilbertsville road, you'll find Paula Blade's home.
"We live on a little farm. I love animals," Paula said.
The lawn is manicured. Inside, her home is tastefully decorated, every detail thought out. Growing up, Paula had less control over her appearance.
"I actually had this little Skipper Barbie doll growing up, and you could twist her arm and her chest would expand," Paula said. "So my cousins, they would try to, they would, like, try to twist my arm trying to get them to grow."
Paula laughs about it now, but the teasing harbored insecurities about her chest size. She was determined to have a breast augmentation. She even asked her parents for one when she graduated high school. They said no, but in 1992, at 20 years old, Paula was capable of making the decision on her own. She did her research and chose saline breast implants.
"Was told they were totally safe, would last me a lifetime," Paula said. "If they did rupture, it's no big deal."
The implants had a valve, like many on the market. They are placed into the breast deflated, then a syringe is used to fill the implant with saline through the valve.
Trouble With Her Health
Even in the beginning, there was trouble. Two years after her surgery, she went back under the knife to fix the look of the implants. They looked wavy under her skin.
It wasn't until years later that serious health problems began to plague her.
"I started getting like chronic sinusitis and different infections —bronchitis, things of that nature that wouldn't go away," Paula explained. "I got these sores all over my upper torso that wouldn't heal."
"Severe chronic sinusitis and running a temperature every day. My white blood cell count was increased," she recalled.
Paula also lost a lot of weight, dropping to just 80 pounds. She went to doctor after doctor and faced diagnosis after diagnosis. She went through multiple hospital stays.
"Just one thing after another," Paula said. "It seemed like it never ever was going to end."
No one could tell her the source of her illnesses, and she only got sicker.
"I was to the point where I was planning my funeral. I knew I was gonna' die," Paula said.
One night, Paula was channel surfing and happened to stop on Discover Health. The show 'Monsters Inside Me' was on. Paula saw a woman. She was a stranger, but her symptoms were all too familiar to Paula.
"She was like me. She had the same symptoms, everything, and I was just like 'Oh my gosh, that's me,'" Paula said.
Paula also saw Dr. Susan Kolb, with Plastikos Plastic Surgery Center in Atlanta, on the program. Paula reached out to her.
"The next week I was in Atlanta, met with her on a Wednesday," Paula said. "She's like 'Honey, I know what's wrong with you.'"
Kolb told Paula she had something called saline biotoxin illness.
"Most doctors have never heard of this disease, so they don't know anything about it," said Kolb. "I think most doctors right now that are internal medicine, neurology, family practice and plastic surgery have patients in their practice that are diagnosed with you know, MS, lupus, other auto-immune diseases and fibromyalgia, that are curable. Curable, if they had explant, anti-fungals, treatment of co-infections.
She has treated thousands of patients like Paula.
"She probably wouldn't have lived very much longer had she not had some intervention in her health," Dr. Kolb explained.
Paula's implants were removed in a procedure called an explant. In Paula's case, the procedure lasted hours, because it's not as simple as removing the implant.
"Specifically, you have to have the entire scar capsule removed. Not just the implant," Kolb said.
The implants were then sent to Dr. Pierre Blais with Innoval Failure Analysis in Ottawa, Canada, for further testing. That testing found "the valve capping mechanism...faulty", the "filling fluid grossly contaminated" and indication of "aspergilli-related entities," —mold.
"It can do all sorts of things in the body," said Kolb.
Kolb also discovered silicone from the shell of her saline implant had leaked, collecting in certain areas of her body.
Anne Ziegenhorn and Paula talked with a British radio station about their stories the day we interviewed them. Anne's from Florida, but she knows exactly what Paula's been through.
"After going through what I've gone through —hundreds and thousands of dollars in medical bills, I've lost my career. It was taxing on our marriage," Anne said, explaining the toll her illness has taken on her life.
To read Anne's blog concerning her health issues related to her breast implants, click here.
The two each thought they were alone, then found each other. Kolb performed explants on both women.
"She saved our lives," Anne said of Dr. Kolb.
Spreading Their Message
Now, they plan to spread the word.
"If I had known some of these symptoms to look for then, I would have thought 'Hey, it's my breast implants, and I need to get them out,'" Paula said.
Life is better for Paula. Her health has improved, although she does have long-term neurological damage. She says she can accept that, because she's alive.
"Does it all look a little different to you now?" I asked her of her life.
"Oh yeah. Yeah," Paula answered. "Life's totally, my outlook on life's totally changed."
"I'm just happy to be here."
Paula and Anne have consulted with an attorney to see if there are legal options available to them. They've also started a group called The Implant Truth Survivors Committee, with the goal of connecting women who have this condition and providing funds to women who do not have the finances to pay for an explant procedure. To learn more, click here.
Kolb, meanwhile, says women need to be informed about all the possible side effects and complications of any cosmetic procedure, short and long term.
"In general, most patients don't become ill before eight to 15 years," Kolb said.
She also urges women to consider where they live. If you live in a climate that is humid and moldy, you may be more susceptible to this condition. In that case, saline implants may not be the best option for you.
As far as finances, Kolb says women need to make sure they are financially prepared to not only pay for the surgery, but upkeep on the implants. She told me silicone implants, for example, need to be changed out every eight years. Others can last longer. Beyond the upkeep, make sure you can pay for an explant or emergency surgery to fix them if something goes wrong.
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