Written by Gayle Mack
Cicely Saunders was a tall, bright, energetic teenager growing up during WWII in London, England. She was raised in a business-minded family, who pushed her towards an education in philosophy, politics, and economics. But it was wartime and she wanted a career with a practical impact and decided to become a nurse. Early in her nursing career back problems prevented her from strenuous labor and she changed directions, qualifying in social work. Gearing her training to public health, she was unknowingly setting up a well rounded direction for her life.
Many of the patients to which Cicely was assigned were chronically or terminally ill and she found that the hospitals were poorly equipped to deal with dying patients. One of her most impressive patients in the late 1940’s was a Polish Jewish refugee who had escaped from the notorious Warsaw ghetto. After already enduring much suffering, he found himself diagnosed with terminal cancer. Unexpectedly, Cicely found herself in a close relationship with this man. Their long conversations revealed a whirlwind of heartfelt unresolved needs. Spiritual conflicts made his physical pain even more intense. She was able to help him come to terms with his faith and found that this gave him peace and helped his pain. Her faith was tested and strengthened as well. With a small legacy left from him upon his death, she began a dedicated life of caring for the dying.
Working with the medical profession and hospitals, Cicely became acutely aware of the deficiencies in treatment options for the incurably ill patient. These patients and their families were often told: “there is nothing more that can be done”. But Cicely refused to accept that there was so little to offer on their behalf and was determined to address the inadequacies. Having been advised that to be able to change the attitude of the medical profession, she should get into medicine, that is precisely what she did, and became a physician.
She was awarded a research scholarship and did exhaustive research in palliative care. She learned about the importance of symptom control by paying careful attention to details while listening to her patients. One of her insightful mottos was, “let the patients do the teaching.”
Dr. Cicely Saunder’s hospice care concepts were in the works, and by the 1960’s she was doing fundraising for a hospital specializing in these concepts. St Christopher’s Hospice was founded in 1967 and is to this day a beacon of holistic care in its multi-professional approach. Through the years Cicely was given dozens of awards, honorary degrees, and commendations ranging from the president of the US, to the pope, and was made a Dame of the British Empire.
And what was her inspiration? The Jewish soldier she met and loved, and all the many patients she met thereafter. Her strong Christian faith was also a major factor in her commitment to the dying and remained an anchor throughout her life. After years of self-sacrifice and devotion to her cause, she found a loving partner and was happily married.
Dame Cicely Saunders is universally recognized as the founder of the modern hospice movement and made quite an impression among some of her American counterparts. Some of her introduction to the US came through Florence Wald of the Yale University Nursing School, who was credited with promoting the hospice movement in the U.S. Those remembering Cicely would reflect that her vision was not that hospice be a monument to itself, but be an ongoing entity with new research and ever-growing creativity.
To quote this wonderful woman, “You matter because you are you, and you matter to the end of your life. We will do all we can not only to help you die peacefully, but also to live until you die.”
Photo courtesy of Sunday Post : Pioneering hospice founder Dame Cicely Saunders remembered April 30, 2018