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Top Nurses in History: Cicely Saunders

Dame Cicely Saunders is recognized as the founder of the modern hospice movement. Her theories regarding pain management and care of the terminally ill contrasted with the standard medical practices of her time. Saunders’ experiences with terminally ill patients convinced her that hospitals and nursing homes were not best prepared to offer the palliative care for which she so passionately advocated.

Early Life and Education

Cicely Mary Saunders was born into a wealthy family in Barnet, England, on June 22, 1918. Her boarding school education left her feeling like an outsider, resulting in a lifelong compassion for those who were different. Saunders was accepted to St. Anne’s College Oxford in 1938 and planned to study politics, philosophy and economics. She left college in 1940 to train as a Red Cross war nurse at the Florence Nightingale School of Nursing in London.

After injuring her back in 1944, she returned to St. Anne’s College, receiving a bachelor’s degree in 1945. By 1947, she had trained at a cancer hospital and qualified as an almoner, or medical social worker. She began working at St. Thomas’ Hospital, where she met a patient who would change her life.

Beginning of Hospice Movement

Saunders fell in love with cancer patient David Tasma and cared for him at the hospital until his death. Her experiences with Tasma and other cancer patients convinced her of the need for more comprehensive care for the terminally ill, to include not only medical concerns but also the emotional and spiritual needs of the patients and their families. Upon his death, Tasma left money for Saunders to build a facility in which holistic and palliative care would be provided to the terminally ill.

Saunders’ interest in holistic care and pain management led her to attend medical school and she became a doctor in 1957 at age 39. Her research into controlling pain and her grief over the deaths of family and friends deepened her resolve to establish a hospice.

After years of planning and fundraising, she founded St. Christopher’s Hospice in London in 1967 as the first facility in the world designed specifically for caring for the terminally ill and as a training facility for hospice workers. The concept combined teaching, clinical research, and pain and symptom relief with holistic care to meet the physical, social and psychological needs of patients, families, and friends. As a devout Christian, Saunders believed that patients’ spiritual needs were equally important and the hospice offered a chapel, staff theologians and prayer time for those who wished to make use of them.

Honors and Legacy

Saunders received many honors and awards throughout her life, including that of Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE), which gave her the title of Dame Cicely Saunders. She was awarded the prestigious Templeton Prize in 1981 in recognition of her contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension.

She also was a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal College of Nursing.

In 2002, Saunders co-founded Cicely Saunders International, which seeks “to promote research to improve the care and treatment of all patients with progressive illness and to make high-quality palliative care available to everyone who needs it – be it in hospice, hospital or home.” The charity opened the Cicely Saunders Institute of Palliative Care in London in 2010.

Saunders died of cancer in 2005 at age 87. She was a patient at St. Christopher’s Hospice, the facility she founded.

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