Sister Mary-Lynne Cochrane admits that chronic pain and the side-effects of pain-killers took a massive toll on her life. But in recent years she’s discovered a new and more life-giving way to manage her pain.
BY Stephanie Thomas
For nearly 40 years, pain has been a constant in Sister Mary-Lynne Cochrane’s life. Yet meeting her you don’t get a sense that this is so. Mary-Lynne is vivacious, gregarious, optimistic and engaged with life. Those who know her say she rarely complains.
But since her early 20s, not long after she was professed as a Good Samaritan Sister, Mary-Lynne has lived with an undiagnosed form of arthritis that has led to numerous surgeries – including three back surgeries, a bone transplant, and the replacement of nearly all her major joints – and constant, debilitating pain.
Mary-Lynne admits that chronic pain and the side-effects of heavy pain-killers took a massive toll on her life.
“In the early stages of my pain I took the over-the-counter drug Mersyndol [which contains codeine], sometimes doubling the dose to cover the pain,” she explains.
“After that I took a range of prescription opioids, including morphine, endone, oxycontin and gabapentin. They made me sleepy, I put on weight, and my pain still became uncontrollable.
“I always had to make sure I had enough pain-killers in the house. If I didn’t have enough, I would panic at the thought of running out and not being able to relieve the pain. I believed my only choice was to cover up the pain rather than manage it.”
Unsurprisingly, Mary-Lynne’s chronic pain and pain medication also took its toll on her emotionally. She experienced severe depression, but kept it to herself.
“I was suffering greatly from depression. I used food as a comfort and I put on all this weight, and the more I put on and the more medications I had, I just got bigger.”
A particularly difficult and confronting time for Mary-Lynne was when she had to step down from her position as Director of St Scholastica’s Boarding School – a ministry she “loved”.
“That was my last full-time job… [It] took me a long time to come to terms with all that,” she says.
“That period was a really, really difficult time for me because I didn’t want to leave. And it all happened really quickly for me. That was terrible.”
Thankfully, about five years ago, Mary-Lynne discovered a ‘circuit-breaker’ which led her down a new and more life-giving path in her “pain journey”, as she describes it.
Just after her third major back surgery, an exceptionally traumatic experience when her pain levels could not be contained, Mary-Lynne was encouraged to visit a pain clinic at Greenwich Hospital in Sydney. She was hesitant at first, having had some negative experiences with a few other pain clinics, but decided to give it a go.
“I went and saw Professor Philip Siddall, a really lovely fellow who asked me questions about myself and not just my pain, which was a different sort of approach,” explains Mary-Lynne.
“And he said the whole process was to look at different ways of controlling your pain. There was no talk about you coming off your medication, no one’s going to take it away from you; it was just to learn how you can control it at different levels.
“So that’s where I went and learnt a completely new style of being who I was and what I can be having chronic pain.”
At Greenwich Hospital Mary-Lynne participated in a six-week program which introduced her to a multidisciplinary approach to pain management that included support from pain physicians, physiotherapists, psychologists and nutritionists.
“That course taught me so much,” says Mary-Lynne. “I worked with a psychologist who dealt with chronic pain, and I didn’t realise what effect it had had on me, and what effect it had on my whole commitment to the Good Samaritans and to this whole way of life.”
Before this experience Mary-Lynne says she could never have talked so openly about the emotional toll of her pain, fearful of “the huge issues that I’d have to face”.
“So this allowed me to do that. It was like unpacking a bag and working with everything I took out of the bag. And it’s a really hard journey to do. It’s an incredibly difficult journey to do. But you’ve just got to do it.”
During the program Mary-Lynne participated in physiotherapy and hydrotherapy sessions and found the emphasis on improving muscle strength and flexibility to be “excellent” for her. She also embraced meditation, mindfulness and visualisation techniques as tools for pain management.
Significantly, Mary-Lynne’s experience at Greenwich Hospital set her on a path of accepting the reality of her pain. This experience taught her to manage her pain rather than let pain manage her.
“I always thought I was going to get better, and I think a lot of people do when they get chronic pain,” she says. “You never think it’s the end of the road; you always think that you get sick and you get better, you go to hospital and you do this and you get better.”
Now Mary-Lynne says she has greater acceptance of her pain than she’s ever had. It was a process of realisation she had to go through, she says, “that this is me and this is how I am, and it’s not going to get better, but how can I make the best of what I’ve got?”
Mary-Lynne believes her “pain journey” has “changed” her and that she’s “learnt a lot” from it.
“I don’t have to do it all on my own and I’ve lost the guilt of being sick,” she says. “There was a lot of guilt that I felt,… particularly being a Good Samaritan [Sister], because I entered to build a relationship with God and to help people.”
Mary-Lynne also feels that her “spirituality is deepening more and more”.
“I’m finding that I’m more contemplative… And that surprises me. And it surprised a lot of my sisters, because I’ve always been an extrovert and been seen as an extrovert,” she laughs.
“I can’t believe Mary-Lynne Cochrane is saying this, but I love space, I love quiet!”
This new-found contemplative spirit is allowing her to be more active. In addition to her part-time work providing information technology support for the Good Samaritan Sisters, a role she has had for some years now, this year Mary-Lynne started volunteering at her physiotherapy rehab clinic.
“I’m spending a few hours there one day a week helping them out, and eventually would like to start a pain group through the clinic. That type of thing is energising for me,” she says.
Mary-Lynne is acutely aware she needs to pace herself and knows there will continue to be ‘ups’ and ‘downs’ in her “pain journey”.
“But if I have a ‘flare-up’, I don’t go down as far as I used to and I can get out of it quicker now by using the things I’m learning along the way,” she explains.
These days Mary-Lynne is managing her pain without medication. An essential part of her pain management plan is regular exercise, such as clinical pilates, fitness activities and hydrotherapy, as well as cognitive-based therapy and mindfulness meditation. To assist her with this regimen, she works regularly with a physiotherapist, pain psychologist and nutritionist.
Mary-Lynne is grateful for the support she’s received to access alternative pain management strategies.
“I have been really blessed because the Good Samaritan Sisters, my family, my community have supported me all the way in this – and I’m really conscious of that,” she says.
“I want to give back to try and help others because I’ve been lucky.”
In recent years Mary-Lynne has been actively involved with organisations such as the Agency for Clinical Innovation, Chronic Pain Australia and Pain Australia to advocate for the one in five Australians living with chronic pain. She’s often asked to be part of advisory groups, to speak at conferences and in the media, and hopes that by telling her story it will help others.
While Mary-Lynne agrees with the Federal Government’s recent decision to make codeine medication available only with a doctor’s prescription, she is adamant that much more needs to be done to provide pain management strategies that are accessible and affordable. And she’s on a mission to make this a reality.
Recently she started a Change.org campaign to call for better services and support for people with chronic pain and better rebates through Medicare for allied health care.
“At present, patients with a chronic condition can be eligible for five allied health services per calendar year. The five services may be made up of one type of service (e.g. five physiotherapy services) or a combination of different types of services (e.g. one dietetic and four podiatry services). The GP determines the number and combination of services that are appropriate for the patient’s treatment requirements,” she explains.
“There is no way to manage a chronic pain condition with such little support. One person with a ‘flare-up’ of pain can use five of these services in a week. People using codeine often need better medical support and to be shown alternatives.”
Mary-Lynne is passionate about helping others living with chronic pain. It’s her hope that this passion will inspire Australia’s political leaders to take action.
“I am passionate about it because I know that there is life with chronic pain. I know that there is this quality of life with it, where I didn’t believe I ever had the quality before.”