Connecting the Dots between Dr. Martin Luther King’s Message and the Hospice Movement in America

Blog by Redwing Keyssar, RN, BA, Author and the Director of Seniors At Home’s Palliative Care program

“Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable … Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.” — Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

This weekend, we are remembering the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his resounding call for justice and equality for all peoples. In doing so, I personally am reminded of what Dr. Eric Cassell says in the film Pioneers of Hospice:  “In the 1960s, the private life became public. The personal became public and suffering became public.”

Photo by Walter Albertin, World-Telegram and the Sun. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

The civil rights movement in this country, according to some, began as a major protest against segregation with the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955 and peaked with the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  People took to the streets, launched boycotts, and refused to abide by antiquated segregation laws. This was a powerful time in American history, and set the stage for major changes that were to come—including the election of President Barack Obama. This week, as I watched the 2016 State of the Union address and saw President Obama walk down the aisle of the chambers in Washington, flanked on each side of the aisle by African American women and men, I felt how deeply change has taken root in our country – even though it often still seems that it is not enough.

The Women’s movement in the 1960’s and 70’s also sent a powerful message to the American people: that women would no longer accept our status to be as second class citizens, that we deserved equal pay for equal work. Recalling Dr. Cassell, the personal, as we understood from the women’s movement, also became political—and the subject of public policy.

It is not a coincidence that the hospice movement in our country happened simultaneously with a powerful civil rights movement as well as a transformative women’s movement.  Pain, in all its forms and on its many levels, had not been discussed publicly before. Consequently, issues of pain and symptom management were not well addressed by clinicians, meaning that many people suffered in silence. Dr. Cassell may have written the first paper on “pain and suffering” in the 1980s, but pain and suffering existed well before that.

It was in the climate of these political movements, which urged justice and freedom and an examination of how we relate to each other as equals on this planet, that the hospice movement emerged in the United States.

A brief outline of the hospice movement in America:

1963: Dame Cecily Saunders establishes St. Christopher’s Hospice in London

1965: Florence Wald, Dean of Yale School of Nursing brings Dr. Saunders to America

1969: Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross publishes On Death and Dying

1974: First Hospice legislation introduced; The Connecticut Hospice house opens

1982:  Congress creates a Hospice Medicare Benefit in the Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 1982

2014: 1.6 million Americans receive hospice services

As we reflect today on the lasting impact of Dr. King’s achievements, may we continue to fight for the values of Justice, Freedom, Equality and Health wherever they are lacking. May we understand that our struggles against suffering do indeed connect all people.

“The time is always right to do what is right.” — Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.