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Influence beyond her own time – remembering Cicely

Author: Dr Nigel Sykes
05 August 2015

Dr Nigel Sykes, former Medical Director at St Christopher’s Hospice, reflects on the ‘Remembering Cicely’ conference held at St Christopher’s in June.

This was a unique gathering to remember a unique person. It was an event that covered a great span in time and also demonstrated the great breadth of Dame Cicely Saunders’ influence.

Here were people who had known Cicely as a medical student, had heard her developing ideas about a new and better way to care for dying people and had seen her determination to put those ideas into practice, even if to do so took twenty years (which it did).

I found myself sitting alongside two other recently retired hospice medical directors, all feeling rather senior, but the freshly told recollections of Cicely went back to the year of our birth.

From the perspective of a doctor working in palliative care here, in a way unlikely to be repeated, were gathered the physicians who had worked with Cicely Saunders to build the foundations of the service we now recognise as St Christopher’s:

  • Mary Baines, who set up the home care service, the first in Britain;
  • Tom West, who worked alongside Dame Cicely as the hospice expanded and then succeeded her as Medical Director;
  • Robert Twycross, who laid the foundations of the research that had been a part of the founding vision for St Christopher’s;
  • Gill Ford who, in addition to directing the hospice’s education programme, played an absolutely key role in gaining acceptance of palliative medicine as a specialty, an achievement that has greatly facilitated the spread of palliative care in hospitals and its entry into official policies; and
  • Colin Murray Parkes, involved in the St Christopher’s project from even before the hospice opened, whose seminal work on psychological problems in bereavement is known worldwide, and who also first showed that hospice care benefitted patients and families not only physically but emotionally too.
The afternoon was not just about how Cicely’s vision brought St Christopher’s into being. It also demonstrated just how far her influence has extended: beyond medicine into nursing and the whole multiprofessional team; beyond professionals, to be a greatly loved figure across her extended family; beyond her own country to be an inspiration to improve the care of the dying in Africa and across the globe; and beyond her own time to inspire through her original example the programmes of research needed in order to bring about continued improvements in palliative care.

Remembering Cicely was a very special event that in both speakers and audience brought together a rarely-assembled collection of people who knew and worked with her. All of them will have had their own memories stirred and, at the same time, learnt something new. Cicely herself should have felt honoured.

This article was originally published on the St Christopher's Hospice website and appears here with permission. Follow the Remembering Cicely series on ehospice this week.

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