Franco De Conno, Honorary Director, and Heidi Blumhuber, Executive Officer, the European Association for Palliative Care, share memories of Geoffrey Hanks, founding member and a former president of the EAPC, in our special series to celebrate our 25th anniversary
You know that feeling when you wake up in the morning with that strange feeling of having lost something very important – as if a heavy weight compresses your body. This was how I felt when I heard that my great friend ‘Gioff’ had died. (Gioff was the nickname created by Heidi and me because ‘Geoffrey’ is too complicated for an Italian). I admired and loved him for his intelligence, courtliness and approachability. I first met him in Milan in 1988 at the first European congress of palliative care. His name was well known to me because he had published a lot on opioids but now he became our teacher; from his publications we started to learn how to use opioids and to understand the importance of morphine. But this knowledge caused something of a crisis for us because now we started to understand that neuroinvasive techniques were not so good for patients, and not the panacea we had first thought.
That congress spearheaded many changes; Vittorio Ventafridda, Derek Doyle, Geoff Hanks and many other pioneers decided to found the EAPC. I began to know Gioff and to appreciate him for his kindness and his very British approach to institutional relationships, yet he was also international and even ‘Latin’ when relaxing.
It was thanks to Gioff’s diplomacy and charm as chair of the scientific committee for the first EAPC congress held in Paris in 1990 that we had such a relaxed and friendly relationship with the local organising committee. After this congress our friendship grew. In April 1991, Gioff moved to St Thomas’ Hospital in London to take up the first Chair of Palliative Medicine – the first in Europe. In 1992, we established an ‘Expert group on the administration of morphine’. In 1994, we visited the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand to present the guidelines of the EAPC for the treatment of cancer pain and to present the data of our studies conducted in Milan. We had many funny incidents such as his first Malaysian massage (very painful), and my first dinner with Thai food (super spicy). The most important result of this trip was the decision to establish the EAPC Research Network. With Geoff’s scientific capacity and my organisational skills this was a great success and continues to this day. I’m very proud of this baby, but only with Geoff was it possible to achieve it. When he was nominated president of the EAPC in 1995, we worked increasingly together because my wife, Heidi Blumhuber, and I were executive officers of the association and we met regularly in Milan or in London to plan the activities of the association.
We remained in contact after we had both retired – less work but we maintained our friendship. During a holiday with us in Sardinia Gioff’s illness began, but he enjoyed going around in the small electric car, snorkelling and eating raw sea urchins in the boat. There were many enjoyable times in the past 20 years. Driving to Salzburg for the meeting on essential drugs for the treatment of cancer pain organised by the International Association for Hospice and Palliative Care, was one such moment. Gioff was a car lover – one of the most beautiful days of his life was when he bought his Jaguar, but he had never driven very fast because of the speed limits in his country. I drove at more than 200 Km/h leaving Gioff equally thrilled and terrified. Arriving in Salzburg, he confessed that his legs were very tired, particularly the left one because he’d had his foot on the brake all the time, yet throughout the trip he hadn’t said a word of complaint. This attitude and great dignity prevailed throughout Gioff’s illness.
Like Vittorio, Gioff regretted that in his professional life he had not been involved in the study of neurodegenerative suffering. He often spoke about the need to resolve the terrible problems of such patients. Perhaps this is the last message of Gioff and Vittorio: the need for more research on all the complexities of suffering. In the last months of his life, he was also anxious to maintain the balance in our world of rivalry and criticism. The memory of Gioff will be with us forever – Heidi and I will miss his voice and wisdom.
Tomorrow in Milan (5 December), at the 3rd International Seminar of the EAPC Research Network and the European Palliative Care Research Centre, Gioff’s life and work will be commemorated. The seminar is entitled the GW Hanks seminar, and Professor Marie Fallon will give an honorary lecture.
To find out more…
Follow the European Palliative Care Research Centre on Facebook next week for updates and pictures from the seminar.