As a young man I started my first real job in Bristol, in the West of England. The then Bishop, Oliver Tomkins, invited me to join his staff as an educational adviser and we lived there for the first five years of our married life.
Our three daughters (twins and a single!) were born there and our son completed the quartet when he was born in Uganda some years later. It was in Bristol that I first heard of Cicely Saunders. She had not started the Hospice movement then but the idea was in her mind and was beginning to take shape.
As is well known, she opened the first Hospice in Sydenham, South London, some 50 years ago and recently I visited there to take a part in the celebrations marking the opening. I last spent some
time with Dame Cicely in Holland when both she and I attended the Four Freedoms Award Ceremony at which she received recognition for her remarkable work. She died in July 2005 but her
name lives on through the remarkable movement which she founded.
Some readers may remember the late Brian Redhead of the BBC who worked on the Manchester Guardian and later was a regular presenter on the Today programme. Brian lived just outside Macclesfield at the weekend and stayed in London to present the programme during the week. I met him frequently at the BBC and knowing of my own connections with Cheshire he invited me to join him in supporting the East Cheshire Hospice in Macclesfield.
I later became a vice-president and have continued in that role until the present day. Over the years I have visited many hospices up and down the country and am still surprised that so many people have never visited one apart from the time when a relative or friend has needed the service they offer so expertly.
Contrary to what many still imagine, hospices are not gloomy places, nor are they places where all patients go to die. I have yet to visit a hospice where there has not been a cheerful and caring community of people giving careful attention to day patients; offering respite to families who need a break from caring for an ailing relative and of course tending with professional skill those who are in the final stages of mortal life.
“Her name lives on through the remarkable movement which she founded”
Only this last week I was able to experience anew just what a hospice means to a family and to a patient. The brother of my PA spent several months in some considerable pain due to an undiagnosed condition. I won’t go into detail as it’s a sorry story. Eventually, after virtually forcing the hospital to do further tests, he was diagnosed with a tumour on the spine and was immediately moved to a cancer unit for treatment to relieve his pain. After several days he arrived at the hospice in some considerable pain and from that point onwards, although his life was ebbing away, things looked up! After a couple of days during which he was assessed, his pain was brought under control.
Nothing was too much trouble for the nursing staff, or for the many volunteers, who were always discreetly on hand. What was such a comfort to him and to his family was the fact that he was in a
community where he could spend his final days in dignity and peace with his family and friends always around when he needed them.
The cancer was so advanced that his death was inevitable but after a couple of days in the hospice he was able to crack a joke with me and on the anniversary of his wedding was able to have a really happy afternoon with close family members. He died shortly after that but peacefully and gently.
That was what Cicely Saunders wanted to provide; a place where death was seen as a natural process and where those who faced it could face it with courage and support from a truly caring community.
There will be a hospice near to where you live. Why not seek it out and see if there is any way in which you might be able to offer your support? This week I have witnessed yet again real practical compassion and caring and I thank God for Dame Cicely Saunders and all who have followed in her footsteps.