While this woman’s name might not be familiar to you, her cause has touched almost every nation on Earth. Cicely Saunders started the modern Hospice program.
Born in June, 1918 in the countryside of Hertfordshire, England, Cicely Saunders came to Oxford University to start her formal education at St. Anne’s college, studying philosophy. Later, she switched fields to eventually qualify as a medical social worker.
After completing her Oxford education, she left to become a student nurse, working at St. Thomas’s Hospital in London. It was there that she met and fell in love with David Tasma, a Polish-Jewish refugee who was dying of cancer. At this point, all hospice programs were administered only by certain religious orders who offered care for the dying poor.
After Tasma’s death, Cicely Saunders became determined to fill dying patients’ last days with dignity. She applied for and was accepted at St. Thomas’s Medical School to study to become a physician; receiving her license in 1957.
Her first physician’s job, working with the dying, occurred at St. Joseph’s Hospital in the poor east end of London, where she stayed for a seven year term researching palliative care. During her time at St. Joseph’s she fell in love once again with a patient, Antoni Michniewicz. His subsequent death to cancer left her determined to set up her own hospice for cancer patients of any background and income.
It would take another six years, and the grueling task of procuring finances before St. Christopher’s Hospice opened in 1967 in London, England. This was the world’s first hospital built expressively to help the dying. It was founded upon the tenets of combining research based medical care with the physical, social, psychological and spiritual needs of both the patient and the patient’s family.
Devoting herself to her work, she did not marry until the age of 61 when she became the wife of artist Marian Bojusz-Szuszki. Throughout her marriage, she continued to work with St. Christopher’s Hospital and to lecture and write about the needs of the dying and the terminally ill.
Bestowed with the title of Dame, by Queen Elizabeth II in 1979, Dame Cecily Saunders died of cancer in 2005 at the age of 87, spending her last days at St. Christopher’s Hospice. At the entrance to St. Christopher’s today, hangs a plain sheet of glass which pays tribute to a gift from David Tasma all those years ago, when dying, he left her with 500 pounds sterling to use ‘to become a window in your home’. His words and his money became the germination of the seed for her to pursue her goal of establishing hospitals that would care for the terminally ill.
Today, Hospice International operates on every continent on Earth, save Antarctica. And who know, perhaps one day the influence of Dame Cicely Saunders will be felt there as well.