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Judy MacDonald Successfully Defends PhD

Pictured: (Back) L-R: Dr. Sandra LeFort, Dr. Penny Moody-Corbett, Dr. Nancy Sullivan; (Seated) L-R: Dr. Shelly Birnie-Lefcovitch, Dr. Judy MacDonald, Dr. Joan Pennell, Missing from Photo: Dr. Tanya TitchkoskyCongratulations to Judy MacDonald who successfully defended her dissertation titled, Untold stories: Women, in the helping professions, as sufferers of chronic pain (re)storying (dis)Ability. The examining committee, which was chaired by Dr. Penny Moody-Corbett (Assistant Dean, Research & Graduate Programs, Faculty of Medicine) included Dr. Tanya Titchkosky (Associate Professor, Department of Sociology & Anthropology, St. Francis Xavier University) as external examiner, and Dr. Sandra LeFort (Associate Professor, School of Nursing) and Dr. Shelly Birnie-Lefcovitch (Associate Professor, School of Social Work,) as internal examiners. Dr. Nancy Sullivan (Associate Professor, School of Social Work) served as Director’s Delegate.

The Supervisory Committee consisted of Dr. Joan Pennell, (Co-Chair) Department of Social Work, North Carolina State University; Dr. Leslie Bella (Co-Chair) School of Social Work, MUN; and Dr. Brenda Beagan, School of Occupational Therapy, Dalhousie University


Chronic pain and (dis)Ability leaves one struggling for normalcy, trying to make sense out of the fundamental operations of one’s body, the meaning of suffering and the social construction of wellness. Within this research the “untold” was brought into the realm of the “told,” for most of the women had never before storied their own experiences of living with chronic pain, dealing with the medical system, or connecting their personal pain and (dis)Ability with their helping roles.

Set within a postmodern anti-oppressive theoretical framework, the guiding research question was, How can the stories of women in the helping professions, who are sufferers of chronic pain and (dis)Ability, inform an anti-oppressive approach to social work practice in working with sufferers? Six sufferers participated, two physicians, two nurses and two social workers, providing a cross-disciplinary lens to their experiences. A narrative testimonial methodology was employed, whereby the person who testified had struggled for survival and the reader through witnessing their strife was called to act.

The women’s stories of life with pain were a testament to their struggles and experiences of oppression, told from locations of vulnerability, strength, and resilience. Personal findings called for a reconceptualization of psychological pain theories, redefining sick-role behaviors as strategic coping mechanisms. Professional findings identified the need for structural transformation in meeting the needs of sufferers, such as, believe the sufferer’s account of her pain, work from a sufferer-centered approach, challenge dominant discourses that pathologize or blame the sufferer, and bring forward systemic changes.

Systemic changes included more immediate and inclusive access to services, classification of pain as disabling and compensatory, and extensive education on pain for service providers and families. Ultimately, social work and other helping professions need to find ways to learn from sufferers, to listen to their stories, deriving insight from their knowledge, in order to more effectively attend to their health care needs.