Volume 7 Number 4
Doctor to the Dying
01 August 1994

Sheila Cassidy shot to fame when she was arrested and tortured for treating a guerrilla fighter in Pinochet's Chile. Now a specialist in the care of the terminally ill, she talks to Kenneth Noble.

At the Freedom Fields Hospital, Plymouth, I see a casually dressed, healthily tanned figure coming down the corridor. So this is Sheila Cassidy—doctor, author, spiritual thinker and former political prisoner and torture victim in Chile.

She recognizes a man sitting near me: 'Hello, back again?' He's worried about his treatment. He has no appointment but she ushers him into her room. They emerge ten minutes later.

She explains to me that her speciality, palliative care, is 'exactly what you saw with that bloke there. It's trying to work with his anger, his fear, his absolute desperation, and if he had pain, sickness etc, I would be trying to treat that as well. It's dealing with the whole person, body, mind and spirit.' She is jovial, somewhat disorganised (I never get the offered cup of coffee), and accompanied by several teddy bears (some are 'private personal bears', but she also sells them to raise funds). 'Yes of course I'll buy a bear for my daughter,' I find myself saying. It's not that she is over-forceful, more awe-inspiring. Here is a woman who reaches out daily to a world of pain and suffering that most of us instinctively shy away from.

For 11 years, Dr Cassidy was Medical Director of St Luke's Hospice and she still teaches there two mornings a week. Now she is setting up a palliative care department in this National Health Service hospital—a recognition by the NHS, she says, of the value of the hospice movement's approach.

This approach is illustrated by the case of Mary who telephoned the hospice one Christmas. Dr Cassidy recalls, 'I found myself tuned in to a very angry, very desperate lady who said that her 20-year-old son, David, who was dying of a brain tumour was screaming with pain and could we help.' Cassidy got permission from David's doctor to admit him and then 'blackmailed a reluctant ambulance service (they were on strike for all except emergencies) to set out at once on a three-hour drive across the moors'.

They found a bed for David and, exceptionally, for Mary too. David's case was particularly hard because his tumour had caused short-term memory loss, making it impossible to give him any kind of lasting comfort. He would ask Mary, 'Am I going to die?'

'Yes, darling, I'm afraid you are.'


'Darling, we're not sure—maybe quite soon.'

'We could see this terrible information sinking in,' Dr Cassidy continues, 'and then running out, as if out of a colander, for after a minute or so elapsed he would ask again, "Am I going to die?" '

David and Mary stayed for six weeks. Later, David's beloved red setter was accommodated as well. On one occasion, when Mary had popped out, Dr Cassidy had to postpone a bedside visit because of the growling that came from under the bed.

Cassidy comments, 'David would have received good medical and loving nursing care in his local hospital.... But, because we have the resources, and because we have forgotten a little how "proper" doctors and nurses behave, we were able to offer a quite different kind of welcome to David and his mother.'

The hospice movement, she believes, 'has rediscovered a style of loving which is very close to what Jesus taught.... There is a certain profligacy of caring that goes beyond the demands of justice and enters the realm of loving.'

Dr Cassidy does not sanitize death. 'Facing death is never easy, not even for the very old who know that their time is running out. For the young it is unbearably hard.' Yet care of the dying has its rewards. She is moved by those whose last thoughts are for others.

It was her experiences in Chile, told in her book Audacity to believe, that made Sheila Cassidy famous. Weary of the 'rat-race' of surgery in England, she left for Chile in 1971, aged 34.

She gradually got to know the country and its language. The extreme poverty in which many lived made a deep impression on her. Many poor Chileans hoped that the recently elected Marxist President, Salvador Allende, would bring about a new society.

Cassidy describes the shock of Allende's violent overthrow by the armed forces, the despair and fear as General Pinochet's regime introduced curfews, imprisoned people without trial, tortured them and made them 'disappear'.

Cassidy is no Marxist but her medical knowledge and compassion inevitably drew her into events. In October 1975, a few days after the papers had reported the wounding of Nelson Gutierrez, a leading resistance fighter, she was asked by a Chilean priest friend if she would treat a man with a bullet wound. 'Without hesitating I said "Yes", knowing quite well that this might mean the end of my work in Chile.... it was not my place to judge this man but to treat him.'

Cassidy tells in graphic detail the story of her arrest by the security police a week later, of her interrogation and torture, and how, in an effort to protect the priests who had harboured Gutierrez, she invented a tale that led a carload of secret police on a wild goose chase around Santiago. Eventually, realizing they had been fooled, they tortured her again. This time she broke.

In one of the most striking parts of her autobiography, Sheila Cassidy describes her encounters with the other detainees, many of whom had also been tortured. Mostly socialists, they were fascinated that some- one who was not a committed revolutionary could be so concerned for her friends. 'I behaved neither more nor less bravely than the majority of the girls... but the very fact that I had suffered to try to protect my friends was an act of witness which made them look enquiringly at an ideology which they had long since discarded: the Christian belief.'

No less striking is her account of her 'longest night'. She had already said what she calls her fiat (so be it) to God. But now, alone in a cell, awaiting trial and for all she knew execution, 'Bewildered and afraid, I faced God.... I had written my blank cheque and invited him to do what he willed with me, yet now that the crunch had come I was afraid. All night I lay there and argued with myself.' She describes at length her inner struggle to 'walk upon the waters, to show that I had the faith to trust him utterly, to abandon myself to him'.

In December 1975, after two months' imprisonment, Cassidy was expelled from Chile and became an instant celebrity.

Sheila Cassidy has written extensiveIy on suffering, which, she believes, has a meaning though she cannot define it. Her faith is in a God who is both transcendant and immanent, close at hand. Once you have encountered him, she believes, you cannot question the suffering he allows to befall you. This is an argument which she develops in the first chapter of her latest book, Light from the dark valley, largely based on a study of the book of Job.

She warns of the danger, in trying to wrest a spiritual meaning from suffering, of glorifying it, and thereby denying its awfulness. 'I myself did this for a number of years by trying to over-spiritualize my experience of torture. So convinced was I of my encounter with God in prison that I denied to myself and everyone else what a devastating experience it had been.' Years later, in coping with the psychological aftermath of the experience—the so-called post traumatic stress syndrome—she was able to acknowledge how wounded she had been.

She talks of the need to maintain 'a paschal overview of suffering, holding in the same focus the awful reality of suffering and the mind-blowing truth that God is somehow in it'. 'So often terrible suffering is quite overpowering to the onlooker unless it is viewed in the light of the resurrection.'

She is no stranger to burn-out: what keeps her going when it all gets too much? 'I turn to other people. I have weekly psychotherapy. I have friends, I have family, I have my own coping strategies which are to do with personal space and creativity. I'm at my happiest when I'm writing or making things. That replenishes my stall as it were.'

Psychotherapy is important to Sheila Cassidy—she was separated from her parents for two years at the age of two because of the outbreak of war 'which has all kinds of repercussions in terms of one's personal security'. It also helps her relate to patients.

Being 'as knowledgable as I can about the way in which my mind and emotions work' is, for her, part of avoiding being 'led up the garden path by the various things that drive me'. To make sure that her life is on the right track, 'I pray, I try to open myself to God in a listening kind of way every day and quite a lot off and on throughout the day.' She feels that it is important, too, to test whether her life is being fruitful. And 'I try to be aware of where I'm wanted, where my gifts are needed.'

Perhaps the key to understanding what makes Sheila Cassidy continually reach out to all who suffer lies in the final words of the latest edition of Audacity to believe: 'The blank cheque written in solitary confinement has been cashed to the full and I know deep in my heart that His love is better than life itself.'
Kenneth Noble


Thank you for access to this interview with Sheila Cassidy. Having heard her name many years ago, I have only recently read `Audacity to Believe', and was deeply affected by it. Its freshness and immediacy is such that it continues to speak powerfully to contemporary contexts which are both different and similar to the case of Chile. For today's younger generation in the west, September 11th relates only to events in America in 2001; not to events in Chile in 1973 (and their terrible aftermath). `Audacity to Believe' seamlessly weaves the complex themes of international politics and personal ethics in a way which remains as relevant today as when it was first written. Thank you.
Pam Stavropoulos, 26 March 2007

I would like to express what a masterpeice of writing. A subject so fragile in content, has been presented in the most articulate and profound manner.

Jenna Bloomfield
Devon, UK
and Santiago, Chile
Jenna Bloomfield, 07 July 2007