University of Michigan
News for Faculty and Staff

October 24, 2018

Professor reflects on life work in hospice care

September 18, 2017

Professor reflects on life work in hospice care

Faculty/Staff Spotlight

Topic: Campus News

For Robert Buckingham, hospice is more than a place to die. He is one of the founding fathers of hospice in the United States.

"Hospice is a philosophy of care which encompasses patient and family care. When a patient dies, you continue services to the family to help minimize psychological effects of grief and loss," said Buckingham, also the first director of research at the first hospice in the United States.

Buckingham, UM-Flint professor of public health and health sciences, grew up in Connecticut, midway between his parents' childhood homes in New York City and Boston. Buckingham has a Bachelor of Arts in government from the University of Arizona, a Master of Arts in social anthropology from Wesleyan University, and a Ph.D. in public health from the Yale School of Medicine.

It wasn't long before his doctoral degree took on new meaning.

"My mom came down with terminal cancer. And so, when she died, I wrote an article in the newspaper called, 'Note to My Mother: Things I Never Said.' It was widely read."

UM-Flint professor Robert Buckingham was the first director of research at the first hospice in the United States. (Photo courtesy of Robert Buckingham)

Around the same time the United States was engulfed in the Vietnam War, and he enlisted in the fight. "A lot of my interests started when I was in the war in Vietnam. When you travel you see disease and inequities, maltreatment and lack of access. These are all public health issues." he said.

His experience with his mother inspired his dissertation on hospice care, and he found that hospice patients were better off than non-hospice terminal patients in terms of anxiety, social adjustment, and pain control. Ultimately, it proved that hospice philosophy and practice was better than existing care in the United States.

Since then, he has traveled across the world from Thailand to Nicaragua setting up hospices and implementing public health services in the underdeveloped world.

Buckingham's work abroad has looked at hospice cancer care, HIV and prenatal care, among others. In Honduras, he was invited by the minister of health to start one of the first medical clinics in the country. In Thailand, he opened a hospital ward for children with AIDS.

"To ask anyone, 'Where would you like your child to die?' That's a terrible question to ask a parent," he said.

However, his most memorable experiences in the field come down to patient contact.

"In my work you're always saying hello, then you're saying goodbye. Some of these people become part of you, part of your existence. I can't tell how many times I've laid in my bed thinking about the little things they've said to me," he said.

Buckingham has written five books on hospice care. His 12th and most recent work looks at how women understand grief. "Understanding Loss and Grief for Women," co-authored by Peggy A. Howard, explores how women handle the loss of a child, ending a career (including retirement), and the death of a spouse, among others.

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Additionally, he has continued his commitment to global public health as founding dean of the School of Public Health at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada. He built the school from the ground up and worked to get it accredited by the more international European Agency for Public Health Education Accreditation instead of a North American organization. He is also the first American member on the executive board of The Association of Schools of Public Health in the European Region.

His reasoning is simple: "There is tremendous value in making our students global citizens in giving them a perspective that is not just the North American perspective and teaching them about culture, illness, treatment, and modalities."

However, for his students, he has an even more simple truth.

"I always tell my students that it's not what you do in life that counts, it's what you do for others."

Q & A

What can't you live without?

My morning run.

Where is your favorite spot on campus?

My office.

What inspires you?

The courage of others facing life challenges.

What are you currently reading?

"The Old Man and the Sea" by Ernest Hemingway (for the third time).

Who had the biggest/greatest influence on your career path?

My professors at Yale School of Medicine and School of Public Health.


Julie Merz
on 9/23/17 at 3:50 pm

Could you please send me the article Robert Buckingham wrote to his mother -
"Note to my Mother: Things I never Said.

Thank you.

University Record
on 10/28/17 at 4:02 pm

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