The founder of the modern hospice movement, Dame Cecily Saunders, died early this month in London. She discovered her vocation to care for the dying in 1948 when she fell in love with a dying Polish Jew while working as a “lady almoner”, or social worker. She realised that she could only be effective if she obtained a medical degree, and began her studies at the age of 33. In 1967 she opened St Christopher’s Hospice, now one of many around the world, but still one of the leaders in the field. She was indomitable in raising money, doing research into pain management, and crusading for palliative care.
Dame Cecily introduced the notion of “total pain” — the physical, emotional, social and spiritual aspects of the distress often felt in one’s last days. She tried to create an environment where care and love would be combined with the best medical management. In her youth she was an atheist, but became a Christian while training to be a social worker. It was, she said, “as if a switch had flipped”. Although the philosophy of her hospice was Christian, people of all persuasions, or none, were welcomed there.
She wrote several books, including Care of the Dying (1960), The Management of Terminal Disease (1978), and Living with Dying (1983). She opposed euthanasia, arguing that proper treatment can remove or substantially reduce pain. She received many awards, including the Templeton prize in 1981. In 1987 palliative care was recognised as a speciality in its own right in the UK. Care for the dying was not just an idea she talked about. At the age of 61 she married a 79- year-old Polish artist whom she nursed through long years of ill health. Both she and her husband ended their days in St Christopher’s.
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