Palliative Care on Stage: Cicely Saunders and a world changing encounter.

There aren’t often plays about palliative care (though we think there should be!) so we are delighted to highlight a new production debuting at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this month.  Sociologist and now playwright, Professor David Clark tells us about the play and the historic meeting upon which it is based.

Cicely Saunders and David Tasma.

When Ela Majer Tasma left Warsaw in June 1938, he had no idea how his perilous departure would influence the shape of things far into the future.  Leaving home and family to flee from the coming Nazi invasion, he went to Paris and then on to London. Throughout the war he eked out an existence as a waiter, adopting the name David, and working in a kosher restaurant in London’s West End.

When peace came, David looked forward to better times. Then illness intervened.

In summer 1947, he was seen in outpatients at St Thomas’s Hospital, by a newly qualified social worker, on her very first day in post. He had inoperable bowel cancer.

The encounter between David Tasma and Cicely Saunders holds an extraordinary place within the story of palliative care. When writing the full biography of Cicely I was intrigued to read through papers and archives relating to David, now safely stored at King’s College London. The modest remnants of his documented life give insights into his situation, but also leave much to the imagination.

We do know that Cicely saw David in outpatients and learned something of his story. When he was admitted to hospital in January 1948, she visited him over twenty times, until his death the following month. She sensed his pain over the loss of his family, his estrangement from the Jewish religion, his sense of a life that he considered worthless.

They spoke of many things and shared their personal stories. Cicely listened and tried to comfort him. His spiritual and emotional distress was palpable and seemed to over-ride any physical symptoms.

Cicely gave him a space to share his feelings and work through his sorrows. The busy surgical ward was not an ideal place for this. They talked of somewhere more home-like where people in his situation could be cared for at the end of life. It sparked an idea in Cicely that was realised some twenty years later.

I believe this is a story that is worth sharing.

It marks the start of a remarkable journey through which Cicely Saunders went on to establish St Christopher’s Hospice, which became a beacon of inspiration to so many around the world. It also reveals how a poor migrant, living on the margins of society and thinking his life would leave not even a ripple on the pond, could have such a lasting influence and be a force for real change in society.

In many ways, it is a story for our times.

Playwriting is new to me. But working closely with my dear friend and palliative care pioneer, Dr Jo Hockley, I have dramatized the story of Cicely and David and it will be brought to the Edinburgh Fringe this August for five performances.  Student actors, directors and production people, coordinated by Jo, will place the story of Cicely and David before a theatre-going audience for the first time.

We hope many other performances will follow, placing two remarkable people centre stage.


To find out more and to book tickets for ‘Cicely and David’, click here.

About the author

David Clark founded the International Observatory on End-of-Life Care in 2003 and the Glasgow End of Life Studies in 2009. He has written widely on the history and global development of palliative care and is now Professor Emeritus of Medical Sociology at the University of Glasgow.  His more recent writings can be found here.  Twitter:@dumfriesshire.

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This entry was posted in INTERVIEWS & TRIBUTES, The Arts in palliative care. Bookmark the permalink.

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