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Dame Cicely Saunders - Founder of the Hospice Movement

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.”  - Dame Cicely Saunders

Saunders is widely regarded as a key founder of modern hospice programs as well as one of the first leading advocates for palliative care to help ensure patients with terminal illnesses are treated with compassion and respect.

Cicely Mary Strode Saunders was born on June 22, 1918 and at the age of 20 enrolled at Oxford University to study politics, philosophy and economics. As World War II erupted, she left Oxford to become a student nurse at London’s St. Thomas’ Hospital, until a back injury forced her to leave nursing. She then returned to Oxford and earned a BA and a Diploma in Public and Social Administration. From there went on to train as a medical social worker. 

It was during this time that Saunders underwent a life-changing experience, when she met David Tasma, a 40-year-old Polish refugee with inoperable cancer. In a few short months, she and Tasma grew close, as he confided to her his feelings that he had wasted his life and she began envisioning how she might help bring peace to terminally ill patients in their final days. When he died, he left her £500 to use toward that dream.

Shortly thereafter, Saunders began volunteering as a nurse in St. Luke’s Hospital in North London as part of her determination to learn more about the specific needs of those with terminal illnesses. While there, she became increasingly frustrated with what she felt was doctors’ ambivalence toward terminally ill patients – those who couldn’t be cured – and concluded that her best chance for showing a better way would be to become a physician herself. In 1951, at the age of 33, she became a medical student. When she obtained her medical degree in 1957, she became the first modern doctor to devote her career to dying patients.

In the following years, Saunders began working at St. Joseph’s Hospice in London’s East End. It was here she formulated her principles for modern hospice programs and palliative care, developing a systematic approach to managing pain in terminally ill patients. By alleviating physical pain, she reasoned, much of a patient’s mental and emotional pain could also be alleviated. She also made distinctions between mild, medium, and severe pain, with different treatment recommendations for each level. In addition, she developed an innovative record-keeping system, using punch cards to track the 1,100 patients being cared for at St. Joseph’s.

Saunders’ approach gave full attention to a patient’s needs in terms of physical, social, emotional and spiritual components (what she called a “total pain” perspective). The idea was to focus on the care of the whole person and embracing the patient’s family and friends as part of that care. Saunders’ approach helped guide the development of palliative care, and modern hospice philosophy.  

Founding of St. Christopher’s Hospice
In 1967, Saunders’ long-term goal of establishing her own vision of what a hospice – more of a home within a hospital – reached fruition. She named it St. Christopher’s, after the patron saint of travelers and began instituting and building on many of the holistic patient-focused hospice programs and palliative care techniques that she developed over the previous two decades. Under her guidance, St. Christopher’s Hospice became the first hospice to link together expert pain and symptom control, compassionate care, teaching, and clinical research. St. Christopher’s also helped pioneer the advancement of palliative care, both through clinical practice and teaching and other outreach programs.

Saunders received an array of honorary degrees and in 1980 was made a Dame Commander of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II. She was awarded Britain's Order of Merit in 1989. Dame Cicely died on July 14, 2005, at 87, at the hospice she founded, St. Christopher’s Hospice.