A DOCTOR who has worked at Wigan and Leigh Hospice for 17 years is retiring.

Dr Cathy Higgins has cared for thousands of patients since beginning her hospice career in August 2003 and is the hospice’s longest-serving doctor.

Most of her time is spent on the inpatient unit working alongside other hospice medics, nurses and healthcare assistants where she looks after patients and talks to families, although she sometimes visits patients in their own homes alongside the hospice’s community nurses.

She said: “I was always interested in palliative care because my role before I came to the hospice was looking after the patients in the end stage of dementia and making sure they were comfortable. My husband saw the job at the hospice advertised and I came in to spend the day with Dr Cliff Godby, who was the Medical Director then and it felt like a family and it was completely different to a hospital environment.

“I enjoy the patient contact you get with being a hospice doctor and if you can help somebody’s symptoms and make them more comfortable it is very rewarding.”

Dr Higgins says that one of the best aspects of working is a hospice is having time to spend with patients.

She said: “I love hearing about their lives – I love hearing about who they have been. In their medical notes you read about a person’s serious diagnosis; you don’t see what they’ve achieved in life and I love it when they bring in their photos and we talk about the lives they have lived. You get to meet some inspiring characters here.

“It can also be profoundly sad, particularly when someone with young children is in or someone whose symptoms are difficult to control. However, it is not a sad place - there’s lot of laughing that goes on. I remember one time I was looking for a patient and all I could hear was laughing coming from the bathroom. It turns out they’d put far too much bubble mixture in and the bubbles were everywhere. I just remember thinking that he was so unwell but these nurses have got him laughing. There have been many times like that.”

She says there have been many memorable moments over the years including when Sir Ian McKellan visited the hospice in 2004.

“It was very exciting when Sir Ian McKellan came,” she said. “I was going around telling the patients ‘Gandalf is coming!’. The visit took place right at the time that Lord of the Rings came out so he was internationally famous. He was very nice and spent a few hours here, talking to the patients and the staff.”

Other memorable moments have been when the hospice staff have rallied together to achieve patients’ dying wishes including weddings, a visit from a horse, an owl and even a monkey.

Although there have been changes in palliative care over the last 17 years as patients’ needs have become more complex, the coronavirus pandemic has had the biggest impact in the way Dr Higgins and her colleagues provide high quality specialist care for both patients and families.

She said: “COVID has been really hard because we have had to limit visitors, which is not the way we do things here. Ordinarily, this is a place where families can spend as much time as they like with those they care about.

“It also means the hospice staff don’t get as much of an opportunity to talk to families and we have lost that face to face contact, which is particularly difficult if a patient or relative is hard of hearing or lip reads.

“Additionally, it means that we have to disobey our natural instinct which might be to hug a patient or relative in distress or put an arm around them but you just can’t.”

Raised in Atherton Dr Higgins’ parents were both GPs – Dr Christopher Higgins and Dr Jose ́ Higgins – at Sevenbrooks Surgery.

Mum-of-four Cathy and her older brother followed her parents into the medicine and for the past year Dr Higgins has also been doing a shift every 6 to 7 weeks at Wigan Infirmary in the palliative care team as part of a Macmillan pilot scheme to extend palliative care over weekends and on Bank Holidays.

Her last day will be on Sunday, October 18.

She plans to spend more time walking and hiking with friends in retirement and spending time with her husband and family.

Hospice Medical Director, Dr Anna Murray, said: “I’ve worked alongside Cathy at the hospice for the last 12 years, and have seen the comfort and support she has brought to so many people – whether they were patients, relatives of patients, or her colleagues.

“Cathy is a dedicated doctor who has helped many, many people during her time at Wigan & Leigh Hospice.

“Her kind and gentle manner, and genuine interest in people’s stories will be missed by all her colleagues. I will miss working with her, and wish her much happiness and joy in her retirement.”