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A hospice heroine

Second Reading

Second Reading
Fr Kevin Hegarty

Last week, one of the main features in The Mayo News was a good news story. There was generous treatment of the opening of the Mayo Hospice in Castlebar. The new hospice consists of 14 specialist palliative-care bedrooms, a day-care department and family accommodation.
Since its foundation in 1993 the Mayo Roscommon Hospice has provided palliative care and compassion to over 16,000 patients and their families. At the opening of the facility, Martina Jennings, CEO of Mayo Roscommon Hospice, paid tribute to staff.
“The people who make all our job easier and worthwhile are the wonderful palliative-care consultants, the nurses, the therapists and the social workers. Everyday you meet families at a time which is devastating and life changing but without fail you bring a sense of calm and patience to the patients and their loved ones. Hospice care is more than helping people die with dignity, it is about helping people live with love. This is what palliative-care team bring to every patient we meet, and we are so honoured to be able to raise funds to help you do this.”
If she had lived to see it, Cicely Saunders would surely have rejoiced in the opening of the Mayo Hospice. She was the founder of the modern hospice movement. She was born in Hertfordshire in 1918 and lived until 2005.
She had an unhappy childhood. Her parents separated, and her experience of school was grim. At the age of ten she was sent to board at Roedean. Taller than the other girls, she was ostracised. She suffered from a crooked spine and this painful condition meant she had to lie flat for 40 minutes a day.
The novelist, Graham Greene, wrote once of the door that opens in childhood and lets the future in. Cicely’s experience of being an outsider and her pain inculcated in her a desire to help the vulnerable. She wanted to become a nurse but her father insisted she went to Oxford to study for a degree. After the outbreak of the World War II she defied him by abandoning Oxford and began training as a nurse. Due to her painful back, however, she was advised to leave nursing. She then trained as a social worker and later qualified as a doctor.
While working as a social worker in the Archway Hospital she met David Tasma, who was a suffering from a terminal illness. He was a Polish Jewish émigré who had escaped the pogrom in the Warsaw Ghetto and come to work in London as a waiter. They fell in love. They discussed the idea that she might establish a home for terminally ill people to find peace in their last days. It was the seed that led to the modern hospice movement.
Tasma left her £500, then a substantial sum. He promised to be a window in her home. There is a window dedicated to him in St Christopher’s Hospice.
Cicely summed up her philosophy of hospice care as, ‘You matter because you are you, and you matter to the end of your life. We will do all we can not only to help you die peacefully, but also to live until you die’.
This philosophy is embodied in St Christopher’s Hospice, which she established in 1967. It was the world’s first purpose-build hospice. It was founded on the principle of combining teaching and research, and expert pain and symptom relief, with holistic care to meet the physical, social, psychological and spiritual needs of its patients and their families.
It was a place where patients could garden, walk, talk and get their hair done. St Christopher’s has an arts group that provide art therapy, drama therapy and music therapy. As a model of compassion for the terminally ill, it has been replicated throughout the world.