Mum's warning after two botched cosmetic procedures left her with deformed breast
Heather Riddles is a private person who has been driven to make public a very personal trauma because she feels she has nowhere else to turn. A botched breast implant operation has plunged the east Belfast mum-of-three into a living nightmare.
Having exhausted every avenue in her bid to put right the great wrong which she says has left her with a deformed breast – affecting both her mental and physical health – she feels she has no choice but to speak out in the hope that help can be found.
She also wants to warn other young women about the dangers of cosmetic surgery. Heather (35) simply wanted to "feel like a normal woman", which is why she had surgery to increase the size of her double-A breasts in 2009.
What she describes as her "flat chest" had caused her years of misery and undermined her self-confidence so much that her parents offered to pay for the enlargement as a wedding gift.
But what they hoped would transform their only child's quality of life for the better has instead left her with a deformed breast and living in fear for her health.
Heather has been refused a free operation to correct the damage to her breast by The Harley Medical Clinic that carried out the original surgery.
The NHS has offered to remove the faulty implants but she has been told it does not have the resources to replace the implants or remove the excess skin which would be left from her current F-cup breasts.
To add to her trauma, Heather recently suffered a seizure while out shopping which caused her to fall and fracture her skull.
She had to undergo four and a half hours of life-saving brain surgery and has no recollection of the next eleven days spent in hospital.
She is convinced that the out-of-the-blue seizure – for which there has been no medical explanation – was brought on by the stress of her battle to have her implants removed.
Heather says: "Seven weeks ago my three children, husband and parents had the worry of me being taken to theatre with only a 50/50 chance of returning and only a 40% chance of not having severe brain damage.
"I have never had a seizure in my life and I am convinced it is the stress and worry about my breasts which brought it on. I feel like a tiny fish lost in a big sea full of breast surgeons and clinics that have the power to help me but chose not to.
"I have been powerless in my struggle to get the clinic to repair the damage they caused to my breast and I can only hope that as embarrassing as it is, having my personal life on display in public may now be the only chance I have for either a surgeon deciding to help me or the NHS stepping up."
Heather, who has three children, Lewis (9), Callum (6) and Jack (5), married her husband Darrell (34), who works as a car cleaner, in 2009.
After her parents offered to pay for her breast surgery, She carefully researched online and decided on Harley Medical Clinic on the Lisburn Road in Belfast, part of a national cosmetic surgery chain. It has since since closed its Belfast branch.
She says: "I was always flat-chested and my confidence was zero. I couldn't get clothes to fit and always wore scarves to hide my chest. I was miserable.
"I just wanted to be like a normal woman. I am very close to my mum and she knew how much it meant to me and so my parents treated me to the surgery as a wedding present.
"I wanted to go up to a D-cup and chose the Harley Clinic because it appeared to be the clinic of excellence, there were no bad reviews and their surgeons were top-notch."
Heather had her operation in Mullingar in 2009 at a cost of £4,700.
Everything seemed fine, she recovered quickly and was delighted with her new PIP implants which transformed her breasts from a double A to a D cup.
She says: "It was fantastic and they were so natural looking that no one even knew I'd had the surgery. I never wanted huge fake-looking breasts, just a subtle, natural look which is what I got.
"I'm five foot seven inches tall and they were perfect for my size. My confidence went through the roof and I was so happy within myself that everyone noticed, it just radiated from me."
Her happiness, however, was short-lived.
When the PIP implant scandal broke in 2011 Heather was alarmed by the reports that the unauthorised silicone filler had double the rupture rate of other implants.
By then she had started to experience some pain in her breasts and an unusual sensation in her arms and was concerned it was because her implants were leaking.
She contacted the Harley Clinic and was told that she needed to prove her PIP implants had ruptured before they could be replaced.
Her nightmare had begun.
"A surgeon in the clinic examined me and said that yes, he definitely thought I had a rupture or bleeding from the inside out but I couldn't get the implants replaced without proof.
"Harley wouldn't pay for an MRI scan so I went to my GP who referred me to the breast clinic in the Ulster Hospital.
"I felt so guilty I just stood and cried. I was aware I was putting a strain on NHS resources and yet I had this mattress-grade silicone seeping into my lymph nodes and I have three children and I was scared.
"I got an ultrasound scan and that night I went on a TV programme to talk about PIP implants and my fears and the following day I got a call from The Ulster Hospital offering me an MRI scan."
The scan confirmed that Heather's implants had ruptured and was the proof she needed to have them replaced in Harley Medical Clinic. Around the same time, Heather's youngest son Jack was diagnosed with Autism and ADHD and she had no choice but to hand in her notice at her job as an administrative officer with the Halifax to look after him full-time.
She had her implants replaced in April 2012 but because the new ones weren't available in her D cup size she had to go for a larger size.
However, although her breasts were now an F cup she felt because of her body size that they were not too big.
Tragically, though, the procedure to replace the ruptured implants did not go as smoothly as it should have.
Heather's recovery period was longer and sharp pains which she was led to believe would soon go away only increased in severity.
She started to take infections in her left breast and suffered ongoing flu-like symptoms.
Then to her horror her left breast changed shape completely overnight.
To make matters even more complicated Harley Medical had closed its Belfast branch.
Heather says: "The infections were bad enough but one evening after undressing for bed I was shocked and disgusted to see that my left breast appeared completely deformed and instantly I knew that the implant had turned around inside me.
"It was like something out of a horror movie.
"The following day I contacted Harley and was put through to the PIP Helpline at Harley's head office.
"I no longer had PIP implants but because I once did, apparently it was the PIP department that had to deal with me – I contacted them over 50 times in a five-week period and never once did anyone ever get back to me.
"By this stage my implant was now rotating a full 360 degrees inside me, from hour to hour.
"Depending on what I was doing, my breast would take on a completely new shape which was revolting and made me feel sick to the stomach."
Eventually she got speaking to someone at Harley Medical head office who, after lengthy and numerous discussions, agreed to pay for her to fly to Manchester to see a surgeon.
She says: "The surgeon confirmed that the implant had flipped and was indeed rotating and felt that there was also fluid in my left breast and advised that my implants did indeed need removed.
"Straight after seeing the surgeon I was met with the clinic manager who presented me with a form of authority which I needed to sign before my corrective surgery could be arranged.
"This form stated that I have PIP implants which required removal and as I no longer had PIP implants I objected to signing it but was advised by the clinic manager that if I didn't sign then no corrective surgery would be done."
Confused and worried, Heather sought advice from her solicitor and decided to sign the form.
She says: "I left the Manchester clinic absolutely terrified yet believing that because I had signed the document that at least I would have corrective surgery free, as my implants were still within two years old and therefore were the clinic's responsibility."
However, there was another shock in store when the clinic informed her they would only perform the corrective surgery at a cost of £5,400.
Having been forced to leave her job, there was no way that Heather could afford to pay it.
She says: "I was absolutely devastated and couldn't believe that any clinic would leave someone the way I was through no fault of my own.
"I mentioned to them I would be seeking legal advice and at that point I was told that 'If I was seeking legal advice they could no longer enter into conversation with me'. I haven't been able to speak to them since."
She tried to take legal action but solicitors here could not take her on because the company was outside their jurisdiction and solicitors in Manchester also refused because Heather lived in Northern Ireland.
That was in January of this year and now, terrified for her health, a frantic Heather turned to her GP for advice.
Heather did see a breast consultant, Dr Khan in Belfast City Hospital, but was advised that while she could have the faulty implants removed she could not have them replaced or the excess skin removed.
She says: "I have been left deformed and in regular discomfort and pain and I feel no one will help me. As it stands now I not only have deformed breasts but also a shaved head following brain surgery and all in all I have never had the beautiful body or results that I was promised when I paid Harley for my surgery.
"A lot of young girls are opting for cosmetic surgery and I think they need to be aware of the pitfalls.
"I researched my surgeon thoroughly and had every confidence in him and still do, although he has now returned to his hometown in Capetown, New Zealand.
"I am in touch with him by email and he has said if I am able to travel to him he will operate on me totally free of charge but I can't afford that either.
"I have now been offered a removal by the NHS but no replacement implants or removal of excess skin which would leave me with huge empty deflated sacks of skin.
"I just feel someone should have a duty of care towards me and I have nowhere to turn for help. I have cried my eyes out and I am absolutely disgusted by how the Harley Medical Clinic has treated me.
"It just seems like a horrible nightmare with no end in sight.
"I totally respect that the NHS is under pressure and I feel guilty going to an NHS hospital for something I did bring on myself but I have three young children and I feel totally abandoned."
Heather adds: "I no longer can afford to pay to get my breasts fixed and I know people will say 'Yes, you did this to yourself so why should the NHS pick up the tab?' but in the dark of night when I can't sleep I think there has to be someone to help me.
"I just hope someone will look and say this girl has had enough and help me."
What Harley Medical Group says...
Harley Medical Group has said that under government guidelines as a PIP implant patient Heather is entitled to free removal of her implants which will include free hospitalisation and surgeon's time. The price of the new implants will, however, be charged at cost price.
A spokesperson for the Group said: "It's important to understand that breast implants are classified as medical devices and regulated in the UK by the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Authority (MHRA).
"Only implants approved by the MHRA can be used. One of a small number of MHRA approved implants was produced by the French company, Poly Implant Prothese (PIP) and we, in common with the NHS and other cosmetic surgery providers, used these implants in breast augmentation procedures.
"The well-publicised issues with the implants from PIP arose through the perpetration of a fraud over a significant period of time which went undetected by the regulators. We were a victim of this fraud. The founder of Poly Implant Prothese, Jean-Claude Mas, was imprisoned for four years by a French Court in December 2013.
"When we became aware that PIP implants were potentially substandard, we acted immediately, and in the best interest of our patients, by offering free surgery to have ruptured implants replaced.
"This decision was based on the best information available at the time relating to historic rupture statistics. When it became clear that the actual rupture rates for PIP implants were significantly higher than originally anticipated, we continued to offer free removal for a medical need within 10 years of implantation and offered replacements at cost price.
"This caused significant strain on our resources, leaving us with no option but to restructure the company in November 2012 in order to continue to provide continuity of care to all our existing patients. As a result of that restructuring patients with a medical need within 10 years of receiving a PIP implant continue to be offered their removal free of charge.
"Whilst we can see that Ms Riddles has had a difficult time recently, we are concerned that she feels she has been treated unfairly in the matter of PIP breast implants. In this particular case, Ms Riddles' PIP implants were removed and replaced free of charge.
"Following this procedure Ms Riddles suffered some complications and in order to assess her properly, we reimbursed her travel costs for a consultation with one of our surgeons in Manchester.
"Naturally, with an issue of this nature we track all our patients carefully, so at this stage Ms Riddles was asked to sign the authorisation for subsequent corrective surgery which identified her as a PIP patient, even though she no longer had PIP implants.
"In line with Department of Health guidelines, our policy in relation to all patients who received PIP implants within the last 10 years remains that where there is a medical need, we will remove implants free of charge. This remains the case with Ms Riddles."
What the NHS says...
A spokesman from the Department of Health said: "We are sorry to hear of Ms Riddles' difficulties regarding her breast implants and of her other health issues. The guidance on issues with breast implants following the issues with PIP breast implants is contained in HSS(MD)8/2012http://www.dhsspsni.gov.uk/hss-md-8-2012.pdf.
"The guidance provides advice on the options open to patients. It reiterates that there is a need to ensure that patients receive the appropriate advice and care. Patients need to be supported to make informed decisions taking into account their personal circumstances.
"If Ms Riddles is unhappy with the course of action being taken, she should consult with her GP or Mr Khan once again. If that proves unsatisfactory, Ms Riddles should follow the HSC complaints procedures to seek redress.