August 2013

One woman’s journey with chronic pain

After years of debilitating pain and more than a dozen major operations, Good Samaritan Sister, Mary-Lynne Cochrane, says she has been given new life thanks to a book and holistic treatment program which gives hope to sufferers of chronic pain.

The Pain Book is co-written by a doctor, Professor Philip Siddall, Mercy Sister and physiotherapist, Rebecca McCabe, and psychologist, Dr Robin Murray, the lead clinicians at Greenwich Hospital’s pain clinic in Sydney.

It is based on the clinic’s treatment program which explains the source and types of pain, how the body and mind respond, and the kinds of treatments available. It also gives practical steps to reduce pain and address its physical, psychological and spiritual impacts.

For Mary-Lynne, undertaking the six-week program has helped her finally step off a medical merry-go-round of surgery and strong pain-killing medicines.

“The pain hasn’t disappeared, but I’ve learnt to control the pain and for it not to control me,” she told The Good Oil. “It has changed my life.”

Mary-Lynne’s battle with chronic pain started in her mid-20s, not long after she was professed as a Good Samaritan Sister.

“I experienced shocking back pain, and I thought it was because I had lifted something,” she said. “I ended up having back surgery to deal with it.”

But rather than get better, Mary-Lynne’s pain progressed and appeared in other joints in her body, resulting in her having nine major joints, including hips and knees, replaced throughout her 30s and early 40s.

“It is an undiagnosed form of arthritis, they still cannot pinpoint what it actually is. I use the term arthritis for convenience. It is the cause of my chronic pain,” she said.

This chronic pain took a massive toll on Mary-Lynne’s life and ministry, forcing her to step down from her role in charge of the boarding school at St Scholastica’s College, Glebe.

“That was devastating for me at the time. I loved my work and so it was quite depressing to have to stop. And then I spent the rest of the year just having surgery after surgery,” she said.

In the aftermath of the surgeries, Mary-Lynne went to a Sydney pain clinic and ended up on a trial for a morphine-based drug, but more pain, surgeries and other invasive medical interventions followed.

Then, last year, after having a knee replacement in February, Mary-Lynne found herself in hospital again in October facing yet another back surgery.

“I woke up in intensive care in terrible pain. And they just couldn’t control the pain level. It turns out that I was on such a high dose of narcotics already that it wouldn’t kick in,” she said.

Leaving hospital with more drugs to try and combat the pain, Mary-Lynne says she was so medicated that she was falling asleep all the time.

“I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t drive very far because I was dozing in the car, so I had to stop driving. I just couldn’t sustain things,” she said.

The breakthrough came when the Good Samaritan Sisters’ health care worker, Sister of St Joseph, Patricia Macinante, suggested that Mary-Lynne try the new pain clinic at Greenwich Hospital.

“It was amazing. They were the first people I’d ever heard who spoke about a holistic approach to pain that treats the whole person,” Mary-Lynne said.

“At the end of the course, I do have hope for the future and I have life that I didn’t have before, in a different way. It has been a huge shift, from fixing the pain to managing it. I see it all in a new light now.”

Sister of Mercy, Rebecca McCabe, one of the co-authors of The Pain Book, said the program is a way of responding to a growing problem in our society.

“One in five people suffer from persistent pain that can’t be cured,” she said. “We wanted to offer a book that talks about the different medications available, but also that says, this isn’t the only answer. There are other approaches available.”

The book is based on the science of neuroplasticity, the idea that the brain has the capacity to change itself.

“We previously thought that pain was a linear pathway, but we now know that it’s a very complex system involving the spinal chord and the brain,” she explained. “And there are ‘gates’ all the way up that can increase or decrease the volume of pain. So the injury might be the same, but you can close the ‘gate’ and impact the amount of pain being experienced. We also now know that we have the potential within our own system to close those ‘gates’.

“So our strategy is to give people control back.”

The skills for doing this include gratitude-based daily meditation, muscle stretching and graduated gentle exercise, such as hydrotherapy, all of which Mary-Lynne has embraced. One of the rewards is that she has come off her pain medication, under the care of Professor Siddall.

Mary-Lynne, who spoke at the launch of The Pain Book, said she is also enjoying her work administering the congregation’s Telstra account and being part of the information and technology team, and that her experience has taught her important lessons about what it means to be a Good Samaritan Sister.

“Through my life as a religious, I’ve learnt that it’s not what you do, it’s who you are. I am on mission because of who I am. I’m a Good Samaritan every day of my life, no matter where I go, whether it’s to the hydrotherapy pool with the women and men there, or the people I live and work with. So I feel as though God’s working through me in a different way to what I first thought,” she said.

“I can look at it now and realise it’s been a gift. Even though it’s been chronic, it’s been one of the best gifts I’ve been given because of who I am now and what I’ve learnt from it.”

The Pain Book is available from HammondPress.

The Good Oil

‘The Good Oil’, the free, monthly e-journal of the Good Samaritan Sisters, publishes news, feature and opinion articles and reflective content which aims to nourish the spirit, stimulate thinking and encourage reflection and dialogue about contemporary issues from a Good Samaritan perspective.

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