Dr Mary Baines and Dr Tom West, former medical colleagues and close friends of Dame Cicely Saunders, took part in a special seminar held at St Christopher’s Hospice in London on 23 June to mark the tenth anniversary of her death.
Early this year, I (Mary) was asked to put together an appropriate event to mark this occasion. We decided to call it ‘Remembering Cicely’ and ten people were invited to speak about their memories of her. These included Robert Twycross on ‘Remembering Cicely as a scientist’, Colin Murray Parkes on ‘Remembering Cicely as a family doctor’ and Anne Merriman on ‘Remembering Cicely as an inspiration for Africa”. And, remembering Cicely as a music lover, Damian Falkowski, a violinist and family friend, played Vaughan Williams’ ‘The Lark Ascending’, which, at her request, he had played at her funeral. Shaun O’Leary, spoke on behalf of Heather Richardson and himself, as Joint CEOs of St Christopher’s, on ‘Developing Cicely’s vision’. The afternoon ended with a Thanksgiving service.
The event was fully booked, mainly with those who remember working with Cicely but also with those who have recently entered the specialty.
You can read several other accounts of this special day on St Christopher’s website (see link below) but here we would like to share a very personal memory.
Dr Tom West, former Medical Director of St Christopher’s, remembers Cicely as a friend…
It began 60 years go as medical students at the ‘pigsty end’ of St Thomas’s Hospital Physics Lab (her phrase not mine). We were labelled ‘Elderly students’. Soon we became ‘Good friends’. Books were important: We wrote to Tolkien begging him to hasten publication of the third volume of ‘Lord of the Rings’. We had tea with Stevie Smith… not drowning but waving!
Music mattered, Cicely had a lovely voice – my only skill (appropriately), was accompanying. Before any solo performance, a miniature of champagne was expected – and provided!
Meanwhile, there were deeper connections: Just before Finals, my father was diagnosed with an advanced lung cancer. Cicely – by now a friend of my mother and very recently qualified – spent the last three weeks of Dad’s life with us. Three weeks, so much better than expected … The GPs listened to her: Regular adequate pain relief. Regular adequate whiskey. Regular-ish bowel movements. We are proud of the fact that the very first terminal (horrible word!) cancer patient that Dr Cicely Saunders cared for was our Dad (and he was a home care patient too!).
Cicely had encouraged me to join the Christian Union where I met two splendid medical missionaries. They inspired me to follow suit – to Nigeria. From 1960 I was in Nigeria bringing a small mission hospital up to date. Cicely was in London creating St Christopher’s. Her frequent epistles, usually written ‘under the hairdryer’, kept me up to date with her progress.
In 1970 I decided my time in Nigeria was up. Out of the blue, Cicely wrote suggesting I should join her at St Christopher’s as Deputy Medical Director ….
My response: “Greatly honoured, but sorry, I’ve given the Mission Society two years’ notice.” Her reply, by return, “We’ll wait for you!” Probably the best compliment she ever paid me!
But there was more: “You’ll be coming to my place,” she wrote, “I’d better come and see yours!”
And, selling a valuable Persian carpet to pay for the ticket, out she came to Nigeria to inspect what we had achieved … including the new maternity unit funded by the Goldsmiths’ Company she had introduced me to.
What followed was 20 hugely satisfying years at St Christopher’s – highlighted by this gathering today – years when it really was possible to ‘practise what you preach’!
I retired, and time passed… Then, only a very few weeks before Cicely died – I picked up the phone and by some miracle, got straight through to Cicely, by then a patient, in bed, here at St Christopher’s.
Quietly, clearly, in words and in silence, we shared the Hospice Farewell Mantra…
‘Sorry. Thank you. Goodbye’.
It was deep peace at the last.
More about the authors…
Dr Mary Baines and Dr Tom West (together with Dr Gillian Ford), were medical students with Cicely Saunders at St Thomas’s Hospital. Mary joined Dr Saunders at St Christopher’s as a ‘hospice doctor’ in 1968 and set up the first palliative home care service in 1969. Dr Tom West was deputy medical director from 1972-1987 and medical director until his retirement in 1992.