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Hospice Ministry in Bosnia and Hercegovina

It is over ten years since my colleague Anne Cunningham and myself went to live in Bosnia & Hercegovina. We went in response to a decision made at the General assembly of St. Paul of the Cross Province to reach out to the suffering people in Former Yugoslavia, which was just then emerging from a bitter civil war. Supported by our links with St. Gemma’s Hospice, Leeds, we embarked on a project to bring Palliative and Hospice Care to the country, working in collaboration with health authorities there. Before we went there was no free access to pain relieving medicine, no philosophy of palliative or hospice care at work. The strategy we adopted was to work alongside local professionals, introducing them to the principles of hospice care, supporting their education and setting up free services that were then taken on by the local health authorities. We never embarked on a project without receiving assurances that the services would then be continued as part of the established health system.

This endeavour involved setting up a Non Governmental Organization called NGO Sisters of the Cross and Passion, registered in Bosnia & Hercegovina. We are a very small but active group that initially included myself, Sister Anne, Sanja Dopa and Dado Dzinovic. We work very much as a team. Our offices are Sanja’s kitchen and Dado’s car as we spend a lot of time commuting between Sarajevo and Tuzla. All our money goes directly to the services.

Since then we have collaborated in setting up a Home Care Service in Sarajevo (now independent and functioning for 10 years) and a Hospice Unit, part of an independent but state supported Social/Health Institution. In Tuzla city, as part of the University Clinical Centre, we have established a Hospice Unit (2003) Day Centre (2004) Education Centre ( 2005) and recently, a Hospice for Children with life limiting diseases( May 2009). Many of these services were the first of their kind not only in the country but also within the area of former Yugoslavia.

Those in Tuzla now make up a separate Palliative and Hospice Care department within the Clinical Centre, now twinned with ST. Gemma’s Hospice in Leeds. It not only provides care to vulnerable, terminally ill people with cancer but also provides on site education and hospice experience for medical personnel not only from the local country but surrounding ones as well. A Home Care service is now functioning from the Day Centre where people get support as well as pain relieving medicine free.

We have been financially supported in this work by St. Paul’s Province; the Misean Cara Irish Missionary Funds; general fundraising efforts, personal donations and smaller funding bodies. It is not always easy to get funds for a project that is abroad. When we have engaged in refurbishing buildings in Tuzla, we have collaborated in using the clinical centre’s own workforce and buiding expertise and thus managed to keep costs to a minimum.

Part of the NGO’s work involves organizing conferences and workshops, supporting medical personnel in ongoing education and experiences in other hospices, as well as providing on site support by experienced hospice personnel from the UK. We have translated key texts into the local language for better understanding, made connections likely to improve and strengthen links and sustainability and generally built up collaborative and pro-active relationships.

My ministry there brings me into contact with many fine people. The Palliative and Hospice Care ethos is a humane and compassionate philosophy that is very much in keeping with our congregation’s compassionate stance towards the suffering endured by people and planet. It embraces all denominations and brings on board medical personnel of good will. Collaborating with local health and government officials and medical personnel has not been without its challenges and disappointments but the project has seemed to grow with its own strength and energy because of the great needs of terminally ill people and their families. The fact that so many people are now receiving much needed care in their moment of suffering and dying is encouraging.

We opened the first

in the country. As it is the first in former Yugoslavia, it received great coverage on the national and international media. Six beds also provide space for parents to accompany their child. This is a great advantage in a country where there is high unemployment and the terminal illness of a child can weigh heavily on an already impoverished family.There was a palpable sense of joy at the official opening. The badly damaged and run down building that was refurbished is now a place of warmth, colour and welcome.

For me it has been a privilege and a gift to be part of this ministry.

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