RALPH NADER once mused to me about what a terrible thing it was that Jack Kevorkian was (at the time) the world's most famous doctor. He was right. That distinct honor should have belonged to Dame Cecily Saunders, the founder of the modern hospice movement who died last week at age 87 in London at St Christopher's, the hospice she founded in 1967.
Dame Cicely, as she was known affectionately in England, was a nurse and devout Anglican who was working as a medical social worker in a London hospital in the years immediately following World War II. She met a Jewish immigrant, named David Tasma, who had escaped the Warsaw ghetto, only to lie dying in a London hospital at the age of 40. Tasma was alone in the world and Saunders made a special point to visit with him every day. Their friendship changed our world.
As Saunders and Tasma spoke of his impending death, she began to comprehend "what he needed--and what all of the other dying patients and their families needed." Saunders had an epiphany. She told me, "I realized that we needed not only better pain control but better overall care. People needed the space to be themselves. I coined the term 'total pain,' from my understanding that dying people have physical, spiritual, psychological, and social pain that must be treated. I have been working on that ever since."
Saunders work was a "personal calling, underpinned by a powerful religious commitment," wrote David Clark, an English medical school professor of palliative care and Saunders's biographer, to whom she has entrusted the organization of her archives. So strong was Saunders's faith in what she perceived as her divine calling, she began volunteering as a nurse at homes for the dying after work. Urged on by her deep desire to help dying people, she went to medical school at the age of 33, this at a time when there were few women doctors.
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