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Lunchtime Conversation

Renee Goossens

Renée Goossens

Mother, teacher, translator and author

At the age of 21, the press reported that Renée had died in a horrific car accident.

And so began the incredible journey of this amazing woman whose qualities spring from strength of spirit, courage and determination.  

Read her story and be inspired. 

The door opens and in front of us stands a tall slender woman. 
She looks much younger than her age of -- 67 and has the natural grace
and elegance of a ballet dancer even though chronic pain is her constant companion. Her slight limp is the legacy of the accident that changed her life.

This woman is Renée Goossens and she has led a remarkable life
and maybe her motto could be:

“an opera a day keeps the pain away”.

Renée welcomes us into her bright and airy apartment in the retirement village she now lives with her enormous cat Oshkie.  The apartment is roomy and spacious as Renée now requires the use of her wheelchair and Scooter for covering – distances over 100 metres.

But today she welcomes us upright as she fights to maintain her mobility.  Renée prepares cups of tea and offers homemade meringues while we settle down to hear her story.

Firstly and foremost she is the daughter of a very well known English born Australian icon, Sir Eugene Goossens. Eugene was the conductor of many orchestras here in Australia and overseas and was a major player in the initial strategy to build the Opera House at its present location. He also led an extraordinary life. 

It is Renée that we are here to interview but of course her father’s life is interwoven through hers.

Gigi:  As a young girl, how did you cope within the framework of such an exceptional family life?

Renée:  Looking back, I did live an unusual life but to me it was normal. My parents separated when I was about three, but I don’t know the reasons why the marriage broke down.  

Then we proceeded to live in an extraordinary situation while in New York. My mother, father, stepmother, English nanny, my sister and I all resided in the same flat.   It was quite bizarre that we were all together but I just presumed that’s what happened.   Kids don’t question things like that.

Lana:  How did your mother cope in this situation?

Renée:  Mother found it difficult and suffered poor self esteem- probably all her life - and I don’t really know whether she abused alcohol then or subsequently

At first she tried to cope looking after my sister and I, but knowing that Father, who was very impractical, would forget to send money on a regular basis, handed us over to my Father and stepmother when they sailed for Australia because she genuinely thought they would offer me a better life.

Gigi:  Did you see your mother?

Renée:  I never heard from my mother after that, and on birthdays and Christmas I wondered if I would get a card or something.   But I never did and I felt very sad.  

When my mother reappeared in my life when I was 18.   She said ‘I didn’t want to confuse you and I promised stepmother Marjorie that I wouldn’t contact you and confuse loyalties’. I presume that it would be either immensely hard or much easier – and I don’t know which! I like to give her the benefit of the doubt, but I think she got a pretty miserable end of the deal.  

Poor mum, when I met her at 18 she had cancer and was an alcoholic.  She had been given the choice of medication for her pain but she said ‘no thanks I will do it with alcohol’.  She couldn’t get through to 10am before starting with the whisky. 

So my view of her at the age of eighteen was “golly this is somebody I have got to look after, not here is my mum to look after me”.

Lana:  Is she still alive?

Renée:  No, she died when I was 31.  I received a telegram to tell me the news.  This was slightly better than when my father died.  I heard about his death over the hospital headphones when I was in intensive care.

Gigi:  You have just written a book Pain Management.  How did that come about?

Renée:  It all started back when I was 21.   I was happily married and had my adorable son Philip.  I was involved in a terrible car accident where I was flung out of the car only to have it land on top of me.  My husband and baby survived.  The headlines of the newspaper reported that I was dead, but I proved them wrong. 

Yes, I was horrifically injured and lay unconscious for 3 weeks. 

The Doctors presumed I would die.  Then when I didn’t die, the Doctors said I wouldn’t walk.  I lay in an English Infirmary for two years. 

Many operations and no rehabilitation because ‘it would be wasted on someone who was NEVER going to walk’ my salvation was Music ‘an opera a day would transport me from that awful place’. 

I lay surrounded by old people and allowed no visits from my son.  I received no cuddles or support, except from the wonderful nurses of my own age who would fill me in on the latest gossip and details of my own health which the Doctors never revealed to me.  One nurse even smuggled in a kitten which lay hidden in my blankets until a horrible old matron heard it purring and banished it. 

The reason for my life time battle with pain and subsequent book starts at this point.

Lana:  Were you able to walk out of hospital?

Renée:  No.  I was given a wheelchair and I arrived home thinking that my life was back on track and I would be in the arms of my husband and my beautiful baby boy. 

That night the bombshell went off.   My husband told me he had fallen in love with Joan, and she would be having his baby in three months.  That night, after Philip had fallen asleep, I told him he was to leave – I didn’t want him hanging around out of sympathy, so off he went.

Lana:  How did you cope with that?

Renée:  Well, it wasn’t as hard as you would imagine as I had been living in an institution for two years.  Even though I had no cuddles or intimacy all this time, I could still understand a young man’s dilemma of being alone for so long.   It seemed to me logical and not threatening, but what I did find disappointing and hurtful was that he had not thought or considered me or my son by getting another woman pregnant.

Gigi:  So now you are at home, alone and unable to walk.  What did you do?

Renée:  Firstly, I threw all of the medication down the toilet.  I had kept pain at bay by large doses of regular painkillers which were prone to make you drowsy.  I could not afford to be in this condition while looking after my son. 

But, there I was in a wheel chair and they said I wouldn’t walk.  

I said to myself ‘they have got it wrong that’s all – I’ll have to prove them wrong’ 

I just had to learn to walk again because the practical necessity was, I had a 2 year old and how were we going to manage in a flat on our own with no relatives or support network except for a couple of neighbours. 

Gigi:  How did you rehabilitate yourself?

Renee:  My son and I crawled around the flat and I strengthened some muscles and thankfully the universe gave me the strength to get up and use the pram as a walking frame.  

Through sheer determination and will I did manage to walk and I was walking from then until 1994.

Lana:  What happened in 1994?

Renée:  At that point, I was in so much pain and I would sit on the pavement and cry. I went to the specialist and was expecting sympathy.  He said “I think that is rather silly don’t you, get a wheelchair and make a life for yourself.  Just get on with it!”  

I went home and cried my eyes out.   I was 52 and oh how I cried.  After 24 hours, that was quite long enough to weep, I got the wheelchair.  Matilda (the wheelchair) and I have been around the world many times together.

Gigi:  Where do you feel pain?

Renée:  I have what is called Adhesive Arachnoiditis which is a severe, chronic intractable pain.  It is actually the inflammation of the spinal cord coverings. 

The inflammation causes the covering to become ‘sticky’ adhering it to the spinal cords and nerve roots as they exit the spinal canal.  It is this adhesion that causes the pain.  It can also cause the loss of motor function, numbness, tingling, loss of bladder and bowel function, gives the sensation of walking on glass, burning, groin pain and in some rare cases, causes paralysis. 

When all of these areas of pain are heightened, the actual site of the injury then takes on a pain of its own.  It is all very complex.  Unfortunately there is currently no cure or treatment for this affliction other than pain management. 

My Arachnoiditis is a result of the 17 spinal operations.  It is deteriorating illness and there is nothing to be done to prevent its progression.

Gigi:  What do you do to keep pain under control?

Renée:  When you are told at 21 that you are not going to make it, I am doing OK.  I’ve learnt to cope with it and what it means. 
I have to manage it. 
I pace myself.
I take medication.
I ensure I have at least an hour or more each day of doing absolutely nothing.  I just stare into space and I also meditate.

Some sufferers and I have formed a society in NSW which is a self help group.  We prop each other up although only two of us are trained as counsellors.

In the past I have had a tens machine implanted in my spine. It was inserted into my chest with the wires wrapping around the site of the pain.  It gave the feeling of ants crawling up and down you as a sort of irritant to prevent the pain from reaching the brain by closing the gate.

The notion of a gate against pain is explained in my book – just think of it as a portal.  The idea is these implanted tens machines are supposed to be much stronger than the small portable ones.  They do not work for more than about four years at most and are very expensive and are used judiciously now.  Fortunately they are much smaller.  Mine was the size of a television remote control – and I am a bit too small for that so it pressed on my intestines. It worked for me for two years in that I went from 60 mgs per day of slow release morphine to six paracetamol only per day - but then it went into reverse and caused pain. The professor said as they ‘don’t really understand why it works, they don’t understand why it doesn’t’ and so they had to remove it.

Then they said ‘instead of being on morphine would you consider smoking marijuana or taking a marijuana tablet’ an offer I refused.  I was certainly not going to use my body as a guinea pig.

I have only got the one body and I have to look after it.

Lana:  You are an extremely busy and productive woman.  Tell us what you do?

Renée:  Well, I am a mother, teacher, translator and writer.  Presently I work from home as I need to lie down frequently to ease the back pain.  I speak French, having lived there for many years, and occasionally work for the Opera Australia Young Artists development programme coaching the singers their roles in French.  I have always loved opera and this is a terrific way of staying in touch.  I make sure my students understand the history that surrounds their whole role so that they can feel the passion.  

I give talks about pain management, and I am on numerous committees.  I try to be reliable but managing pain can sometimes mean missing appointments. I am lucky as I have very few bad days where I have to ‘close down and shut shop and tell them I won’t be in’!  

I try very hard to take care of myself and not to get into situations where I am so unwell I have to cancel things.  So I pace myself, the key to survival.   It means only doing major things on alternate days. 

Yesterday I was in the city doing a radio interview, today I am here resting at home, tomorrow I am giving another talk.  Spacing events out is the answer.

Gigi:  Your Book on Pain Management has just been released?

Renée:  Yes, I am hoping it will be a great help to a great many of sufferers.  Apart from my own experiences I have interviewed about 100 or so other families of pain sufferers and also sought the advice of numerous medical and other health professionals. 

Gigi:  I have perused the book and it looks marvellous.  It is easy to understand and it is so interesting and the information is spot on. 

You cover so much such as ‘what causes pain’, ‘how to lift your spirits’, ‘caring for someone with pain’ and ‘when pain becomes the battlefield’.  You also have a section of ‘Children with Pain’. 

Just judging on what I have read I think you have a terrific manual for anyone who is dealing with the ramifications of pain. 

We also talk about her interest at the Willoughby Civic Centre.  The Centre is about to undertake construction of a huge entertainment centre at the cost of $150 million and most of the money has been raised. 

It will be a beautiful building with acoustics and access being the major focus.  It is due for completion in August 20, 2010.  Renée is a patron, along side Yvonne Kenny, Bob Hawke and Matthew Reilly.  If you have a spare $1,500.00 you might like to purchase a seat in the Theatre.  Whilst ownership is not actually yours, it will sport your name as the generous donor.  If you visit the theatre after 2010, see if you can find Renée and her father Eugene. Their seats will be sitting side by side somewhere in the theatre.

If you wish to buy a seat email: or go to the website:

We discuss being mothers and grandmothers, and take a look at the beautiful photos of her son and daughter-in-law’s wedding.  She mentions a favourite movie “As it is in Heaven”. 

We are women enjoying each other’s company and sharing our stories.

And for those of you who would like to buy a copy of her excellent Pain Management Book, please contact:

While you are at it, you might like to buy her previous book: Belonging which will give you a real incite into her incredible journey.  Rockpool is printing a second edition which should be out in November 2007. 

And somewhere out there, her story of living in France is awaiting publication.  So keep your eyes open for that one.

Thankyou,  Renée, for being this Week's Wise Woman and sharing your story. 

We guarantee that Renée’s book will be a help and comfort for many.

Gigi ! | Tuesday, January 15, 2008 | Comments (1) | Trackbacks (0) | Permalink | back to top


I have just read belonging, and enjoyed it very much. My best wishes for you and yours, and for a satisfying future.
Posted: 11-Jun-2012 11:12 AM | Jacqui Matters |

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