A few weeks ago I attended a Syrian Suppers fundraising event. It seemed a long way from my current interests in the life and legacy of Cicely Saunders, but just before leaving I was asked by an acquaintance about when my latest book was coming out. It was just one example among so many of late where only a few ‘degrees of difference’ have separated me from the subject of my new biography.
This person explained that her aunt had known Cicely Saunders rather well. I asked for more details and was delighted to learn that the she was referring to Betty Read, who had been head almoner and mentor to Cicely Saunders in the late 1940s and early 1950s at St Thomas’s Hospital in London. It was Betty Read who had supported Cicely through the unusual circumstances relating to David Tasma, who died in 1948, leaving her a sum of money and who had such a formative influence on Cicely’s subsequent ‘heart and mind’.
The following week at a seminar given to our group by Professor Carlos Centeno, who was visiting from Spain, I had a similar encounter. Here I made some reference to Norman Barrett, the St Thomas’s surgeon who had seen so much potential in Cicely and encouraged her to continue her studies and train as a doctor. Later a retired colleague explained to me that he too had been trained by ‘Pasty’ Barrett and had found him similarly inspiring in his passion for multi-disciplinary working, teamwork and the hardened realism of ‘publish or perish’, a phrase of which Barrett was extremely fond.
Next came something unexpected in the email. I heard out of the blue from a palliative medicine doctor in the USA who also creates cartoons in his spare time. He is working on a 10 page illustrated history of Cicely. Titled ‘Love and Steel’, it is a remarkable visual depiction of some of the main events in her life as well as her manifold achievements. I was delighted to provide some comments on the draft and am looking forward eagerly to seeing the finished work in due course.
Soon afterwards I had an opportunity to talk in-depth about Cicely Saunders at the Boswell Book Festival. In the conversations that followed, a student nurse told me she was being drawn to palliative care and now, having heard more of Cicely’s contribution, she had decided to make it her main focus and goal. Then a man from the audience told me how as a teenager in 1975 he had been dragooned into a sponsored walk to raise funds for his local hospice in Sydenham. meeting Cicely at the end of the day and feeling similarly inspired by her.
After the festival appearance our group went on to a party, deep in rural Galloway – the place to which Buchan’s hero Richard Hannay had fled to escape his pursuers in The Thirty Nine Steps. To my astonishment one of the guests was Dame Barbara Monroe, social worker, writer, activist and former Chief Executive of St Christopher’s Hospice, Sydenham – founded by Cicely Saunders in 1967. Barbara was keen to get hold of an advance copy of the new book in order to prepare her talk for its official launch, which will take place on the 100th anniversary of Cicely’s birth (22 June) at the hospice.
In this very important year, I am sure these serendipitous encounters will continue to occur. They are testimony to the remarkable reach of the life, work and legacy of Cicely Saunders. I am looking forward to meeting more people who have a story or experience to share and who have been touched in some way by the founder of the modern approach to hospice and palliative care.