The life of a young London nurse and social worker named Cicely Saunders was changed by one of her patients who was terminally ill – David Tasma, a Polish Jew from the Warsaw ghetto who worked as a waiter.
For two months before he died, he talked to Cicely Saunders about death and care of the dying. He told her what he, and other patients like him needed. She started to work in that direction.
But she quickly realised that if she really wanted to change anything, she would have to become a doctor herself. She began training at age 33 and qualified when she was 39 in 1967. She then founded her own hospice, St Christopher’s in South London.
The hospice movement that Dame Cicely pioneered had two main areas of concern. The first was medical and pharmacological, the second was spiritual and psychological. One of her main studies was ways of controlling patients’ pain with patients remaining conscious and in control. Each individual patient had his or her own special mix of medication to suit particular needs.
The objective of pain relief through potent painkillers and associated medicines is to ensure that the patient is symptom-free, while still maintaining full faculties to continue living a life of quality and dignity. Relief from pain brings its own peace.
Doctors and nurses dedicated to helping patients live fully before they die have followed in the footsteps of Dame Cicely all over the world, including South Africa, where hospices are now widespread.
‘If we knew how to die, we would know how to live. If we knew how to live, we would know how to die.’ – Dr Runcie, Archbishop of Canterbury