After her first child was born in 1999, Missy Lavender had a rude awakening – she realized she could no longer laugh, sneeze or lift her baby without leaking urine.
Her problem: stress urinary incontinence or SUI, a common affliction that affects millions of women.
The typical patient with SUI develops the condition after childbirth, when the stresses of pregnancy and delivery weaken the pelvic floor muscles and the urethral sphincter, a muscle that works as an on-off switch for bladder control. A New England Journal of Medicine study (2003) found that 21 percent of women who deliver a baby vaginally have some degree of incontinence.
When Lavender consulted her doctor she was told to Kegel (perform pelvic floor muscle exercises) and come back in six months. When that failed to solve her problem, she sought expert care, eventually had surgery, but was still dissatisfied with the availability of information and practical, holistic solutions available in the market. Shortly thereafter, Lavender put her Northwestern University MBA to use: she began the Women’s Health Foundation (WHF), a demure title that reflects the public’s reluctance to deal directly with issues of incontinence.
“For many women there is such a stigma attached to this disorder,” Lavender explains. “We are all potty trained as toddlers and the assumption is you then control your own elimination. To have to admit that you can’t is like admitting you are infantile or senile. For those of us who are neither, it’s embarrassing.”
Lavender was determined to get the shame out of finding treatment, to increase public awareness of just how prevalent the problem is and to bring an openness and sense of humor to the process. She founded the organization in 2004. One of the organization’s principle efforts has been to develop and teach a wellness-based program called Total Control®, a seven-week class designed to educate participants about pelvic health and exercise. The Foundation offers training and licensing of instructors, who then lead classes through hospitals, fitness centers, YMCAs and other community centers.