Her blue eyes still sparkle with determination. Her voice,once a beautiful soprano,echoes a sense of confidence. Every wrinkle tells a story – of a patient she’s treated,a laugh,a lost love,a calling. The wooden stick that helps her walk symbolizes her life’s journey.
Dr. Cicely Saunders,83,founded St. Christopher’s in London,birthplace of the modern hospice movement,and helped bring global attention to care for the terminally ill. St. Christopher’s is being honored Nov. 30 in New York City with the $1 million Conrad N. Hilton humanitarian prize. Saunders will accept the award.
Hilton is best known for his hotel entrepreneurship,but in his last will and testament,he instructed that his wealth be used to help alleviate human suffering throughout the world. The Conrad N. Hilton Foundation and the humanitarian prize it awards annually are the results of his last wishes.
After more than 30 years of working with St. Christopher’s,Saunders said she is able to look back on her life and see how God called her to devote her life to the dying.
She was a gawky,unpopular teenager,which taught her to understand rejection.
Her parents were incompatible and eventually separated,but she inherited her dad’s determination and her mother’s caring and attention to detail.
She went to Oxford to study politics,philosophy and economics. When World War II broke out,she decided to become a nurse instead.
A back injury ruined her nursing career but she found another passion. In 1947,she met David Tasma,a Warsaw Ghetto survivor who at 40 was dying of cancer in a London hospital.
Saunders became his only visitor. She recited Psalms to him and they talked about the needs of patients near the end of their lives. When Tasma died,he left her 500 pounds (about $731 in today’s U.S. dollars) in his will.
Encouraged by Tasma’s gift and struck by the plight of late-stage cancer patients,Saunders enrolled in medical school,specifically to find ways to treat the terminally ill.
Once she earner her medical degree,she studied end-of-life pain by keeping detailed records of medication doses and tracked 1,100 patients through notes and tape recordings to show that regular medication to control pain did not lead to drug dependency.
She began writing articles on care for the dying and visited the United States to talk to students about pain management. It was during one such trip that she met the people who would later start the first American hospice.
In 1967,after years of research and planning,St. Christopher’s Hospice opened as a place that worked to meet the physical,mental,social and emotional needs of terminally ill patients.
“That’s the important thing about hospice as I started it,” Saunders said. “It was good solid ordinary medicine,but very much with a spiritual dimension.”
Two years later,St. Christopher’s began home care. The principles of hospice care have been spreading ever since.
There are 7,000 hospices today in more than 90 countries.
Hospices still specialize in palliative care,which is aimed at pain and symptom control and not at a cure. They emphasize the quality of life,and there’s a focus on both the patient and the family.
“Giving patients space,freedom from pain,gives them a chance to relate to the people around them,” Saunders said. “You can’t do that if you’re having inappropriate intensive care with tubes and masks and pain.”
Hospice is now recognized as a legitimate form of medical care,but that recognition came with hard work and a stubborn will,Saunders said.
When she was raising the funds for St. Christopher’s,Saunders didn’t go to the public because she didn’t think people would understand what she was trying to do.
Instead,she contacted doctors and church groups and wrote 10,000 letters – half to medical professionals to get advice on the best kind of care and the other half to potential donors.
“I just kept on believing that it was the right thing to do,” she said. “I think the major demand was that if you get it right,it will happen.”
Although she always believed in what she was doing,Saunders said she was somewhat surprised that hospices have caught on around the world.
She credits her faith as a Christian for helping her persevere. “It gave me a confidence that this wasn’t just me on my own,that this is something that’s going to happen and help will come,” she said. “But it doesn’t mean you sit back and wait,it means you get out and work your tail off.”
Saunders still has that same work ethic. She can barely walk more than 30 yards before needing to rest and she can’t stand for long,but that hasn’t stopped her from going to St. Christopher’s every day.
Saunders married at age 62. Her husband,Marian Bohusz-Szyszko,a Polish artist whose work decorates St. Christopher’s,died at St. Christopher’s in 1995 after 15 years of marriage.
Saunders said she hopes to see death the way her late husband did.
“He used to sit back in his chair and say,’I am completely happy. I have done what I had to do in my life and I am ready to die.'”