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Dame Cecily Saunders

The the mother of modern hospice care passes on.

12:00 AM, Jul 19, 2005 • By WESLEY J. SMITH
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Dad benefited tremendously from hospice care. His last several months were peaceful, pain-free, and nurtured. He was cared for deeply by my mother and by dedicated hospice professionals. He would spend hours sitting on a bench in his back yard overlooking his beloved cactus garden, contemplating his life and the ultimate issues raised by human mortality. As an only child, I carried a heavy burden, not only in caring for my father, but also my mother, who was devastated by the depth of her pending loss. Hospice provided me with grief counseling--before Dad died--an invaluable aid in helping me help my folks. Dad died in a veteran's hospital hospice unit in Los Angeles, and with his passing he gave me an invaluable gift: my father taught me how to die with dignity, courage, and fortitude.

I also reflect upon Frank's death. Frank was my childhood best friend's father and my "second dad." In 1997, he also died of colon cancer. Unfortunately, unlike my father, it was difficult for his family to get his doctor to agree to hospice care, causing him much unnecessary suffering. But once admitted to hospice, Frank's life changed from one of intense pain and suffering, into a relaxed, peaceful, pain-free ending. "Hospice was so wonderful." Frank's wife, Jean, recalled. "I will never forget the depth of care showed by the doctor and the nurses, particularly Jill, who came every day to visit. They showed Frank such tremendous compassion. It is hard to believe that there are people in the world who are so deep down compassionate to strangers. But there are. They are sincere and wonderful about it."

Frank's last words to me, spoken quietly and with great dignity just three days before his passing, reflected the quality of care he received: "I am ready to die."

My good friend Julia died this last April 1, at the too early age of 50, from breast cancer. Julia had three young children and she was determined that they would always know that she didn't leave them easily. For nine years she fought with grit and determination against her spreading disease.

Julia's spirit was more than willing but finally, her body gave out. Julia received excellent hospice care for the remaining months of her life, during which time she remained a central figure in her family, her symptoms managed as she slowly weakened. She received such good care that she enjoyed a leisurely lunch with her husband Colin, my wife Debra, and me at a restaurant near her home a mere four days before she died.

There is a direct through-line of compassion and love from David Tasma in 1948, to my father in 1984, to Frank in 1997, and Julia in 2005, and now to Dame Cecily herself in 2005--to the millions of others who have benefited from hospice care since 1967. None of this would have happened had Cecily Saunders not come to the realization that dying isn't dead: It is living, and that means no one should be denied dignity, love, and inclusion as they pass through their final days. The good she did cannot be measured.

Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, an attorney for the International Task Force on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide, and a special consultant for the Center for Bioethics and Culture. He is the author of Culture of Death: The Assault on Medical Ethics in America, from which much of this article was adopted.