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Dame Cicely Saunders, 87; Pioneered Modern System of Hospice Care

July 16, 2005|Valerie J. Nelson | Times Staff Writer

Dame Cicely Saunders, who launched the modern system of hospice care, has died in the London hospice she founded in 1967. She was 87.

Saunders died Thursday of cancer at St. Christopher's Hospice, where she had been a patient for some time, said Barbara Monroe, chief executive of the hospice.

"Countless patients and families in this country and all over the world have benefited from Dame Cicely's vision and leadership on end-of-life care," said Mike Richards, Britain's national cancer director.

While working in the late 1940s at a London hospital, Saunders met the man who would change her life -- and the deaths of many others.

He was a 40-year-old survivor of the Warsaw ghetto named David Tasma who was dying of cancer. She was his only visitor, and as the two became close, they talked about the care patients need at the end of their lives.

"I was already thinking I must do something about the dying," Saunders told the Times of London in May. "He said he had a bit of money to leave -- and that he would like to help set up a home for the dying. 'I'll be a window in your home' was how he put it."

He left 500 pounds. It would take almost 20 years of fundraising before she could build "a home around Tasma's window," Saunders said earlier this year.

First, Saunders, who had trained as a nurse and then a social worker, had to reinvent herself.

She decided to study medicine after a physician friend told her that doctors wouldn't listen to a nurse's ideas on pain management, but that they would listen to another doctor.

"It's the doctors who desert the dying," Saunders recalled him saying.

She enrolled in St. Thomas' Hospital Medical School in London, became a doctor at the age of 39 and opened St. Christopher's 10 years later.

The hospice delivered "good, solid, ordinary medicine, but very much with a spiritual dimension," Saunders said in 2001.

At first, Saunders' strong Christian faith worried doctors at the hospice.

"We suspected she wanted to produce deathbed conversions," Colin Murray Parkes, a consulting psychiatrist, told Time magazine in 1988. "How wrong we were."

St. Christopher's pioneered research on the use of morphine for pain control and became the first teaching hospice, according to the facility.

Saunders became a leading authority on palliative care. The key, she insisted, was in listening to what the dying have to say -- plus love and the judicious use of painkillers.

Queen Elizabeth II named Saunders a dame of the British Empire in 1980 for her work in the hospice movement.

A year later, Saunders received the Templeton Prize, considered the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for religion; Mother Teresa was also a recipient.

In 2002, she established the Cicely Saunders Foundation, an international research and education body dedicated to improving end-of-life care.

She spent much of her time fundraising, avoiding the spotlight cast on her more famous contemporary, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, the author of the 1969 book "On Death and Dying," who encouraged the hospice movement in the U.S. (Kubler-Ross died last year.)

"I am not a cult figure," Saunders once angrily snapped at an adoring American, Time magazine reported.

Saunders was born June 22, 1918, to Philip Saunderson, a wealthy London real estate agent, and Mary Knight.

Her grandmother died when she was 8, but Saunders once recalled that her disappearance was never discussed.

She studied politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford University, but when World War II broke out Saunders decided to become a nurse.

She stayed single until she was 62 -- if she hadn't, she claimed, she never would have accomplished all she had -- and married an artist she met when she bought one of his paintings. Her husband, Marian Bohusz-Szyszko, died at St. Christopher's in 1995. They had been married for 15 years.

Her husband's paintings decorate many of the walls of St. Christopher's, where the atmosphere is cheerfully calm and casual. Visitors, even young children, are welcome any time, and dogs saunter around visiting their sick owners.

Saunders is survived by two brothers, John, of Moreton, in Marsh, England, and Christopher, of Cambridge, England.

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