Breaking through the pain barrier



Pain specialist Professor Michael Cousins gave Mosman author Gabriella Kelly-Davies her life back after years of suffering debilitating migraines following a cycling accident. Now, 16 years later, the biography writer has shown her gratitude by immortalising his incredible life story. 

Gabriella Kelly-Davies writes biographies for a living. From musicians to journalists, volunteers to company directors, she’s shared the stories of many inspirational Australians. 

But when the time came for her to choose a subject for her PHD in non-fiction writing, she knew there was one person’s tale she wanted to tell. 

“Professor Michael was my pain specialist at Royal North Shore Hospital (RNSH) for many years because I suffer from chronic migraines,” she explains.

“As a doctor, he’s incredibly kind, compassionate and he's very gentle. But he can also be tough.

“When I joined the hospital’s fundraising committee in 2008, I saw for the first time a tough negotiator and a very skilled fundraiser and entrepreneur.

“That really inspired me – to see that tenacity, perseverance and resilience when faced with seemingly insurmountable obstacles at times.”

What she unearthed over the writing process was the story of a man with, as she describes, ‘incredible vision, determination and drive to move mountains’. 

It was in 1964, at the age of 25, that Professor Cousins decided to dedicate his life to reducing the suffering of those experiencing pain, after treating two critically burned boys in a Sydney hospital.

This sparked a nearly 50-year career in pain research and treatment, resulting in the establishment of a world-leading pain centre at RNSH; the Australian Pain Society of Medical Professionals; the Faculty of Pain Medicine at Sydney University; and Pain Australia. 

“He faced incredible opposition at times, though,” Gabriella recalls. 

“Bureaucrats just didn't want to know about pain and pain medicine, and the need to fund multi-disciplinary pain services. So, he really battled, day-in day-out.

“But this determination saw the centre, which is now named after Michael, go from being understaffed with limited facilities to being a blueprint for other pain centres around the globe.”

Part of what contributed to this eventual success, Gabriella says, was his unwavering focus on improving the quality of patients’ lives. 

“Whatever he tried to do, it was to try and reduce suffering by improving the treatment of pain. And because he kept it at the front of his mind all the time, he just drove forward.

“He's also got a very precise way of negotiating,” she smiles.

“He says, 'You never walk into a meeting ready to agree to anything that you haven't agreed to before you went in, and if you can't get an agreement before the meeting, just go in, grit your teeth, and get out of there!’” 

While Professor Cousins may have retired, his ground-breaking work continues to benefit Australian patients, with his national strategy on pain management recently transformed into an action plan after receiving funding by the Australian Government.

And with Gabriella releasing his story this month as her book Breaking through the Pain Barrier, she hopes sharing Professor Cousins’ tireless work and advocacy will provide hope to patients afflicted by pain.

“I would like anyone who lives with pain to really draw optimism from this book that they're not alone, because most people with chronic pain think that they're the only one,” she says.

“They often feel stigmatised and socially isolated. So, I want them to know that one in five people live with chronic pain and, thanks to people like Michael, there are now services available to help them.”

Stephanie Aikins, News Editor, North Shore Living

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