Dr Heather McCluggage has been described as a ‘guardian angel’ for children with life threatening or life limiting illnesses and their families.
She has helped guide hundreds of families in the Western Trust area through some of the darkest hours and toughest decisions of their lives.
Now, after two decades in the role, Heather has celebrated a ‘big birthday’ and retired from her post as associate specialist in paediatric palliative care.
During that time the much loved doctor became part of many local families whose children were chronically and seriously ill.
“There are still people out there who think palliative care means last 48 hours of life.
“Sometimes it does mean coming alongside a family and walking that horrible path with them. For others you are providing care for years and helping them and their families at different times,” said Heather.
“It’s been a privilege and a pleasure to be able to serve these children and their families,” she added.
However, Heather had never intended to become a paediatrician, or to work in palliative care.
After qualifying as a doctor in 1982, she trained to become a GP at the same time as raising her young family.
Heather took up a part time role in a practice in East Belfast and it was there where she encountered palliative care.
“The practice had a policy if you took on end of life care of a patient, you looked after that patient. It didn’t matter what time of the day or night, that was your patient.”
In 1994, Heather and her family moved to Strabane and she began to work in school health for the Western Trust.
“I was sent to join a committee for Out of Hours care for children, particularly kids with special needs and it became obvious there were kids out there who needed somebody who knew what they were doing.
“I made enquiries and went off to do what I thought was a Diploma in Palliative Medicine, but was actually a Diploma in Paediatric Palliative Medicine.”
Heather was the first person in the UK to complete the diploma and it opened the doors on a new career.
“The Western Trust commissioned a job for me in children’s palliative care based in the community and that was unheard of in Northern Ireland at the time.”
Heather describes her role as ‘the best job and the worst job in the world’.
“It was the worst job when you are sitting with a child who is dying and the best because I had the privilege to sit with a cup of tea at a kitchen table listening to a family’s issues. Quite often it meant so much to those families.
“One family told me last week that I had done so much for them. When I thought about it medically I had prescribed one drug for their child but I had many, many cups of tea and chats with them.
“Palliative care is all about the child and they are at the centre of everything we do. I had the pleasure of providing a domiciliary service, getting to know the whole family in order to provide the best of care.
“Life threatening and life limiting illnesses impact everyone and completely change the whole life of the family.”
Heather said she became part of many local families.
“They knew if there was a problem they could ring me at any time.”
Over the last two decades, Heather ‘pushed the boundaries for children’s palliative care’ and there is now a strategy in place.
“I had the chance to do this job my own way and not many people get the chance to do that. I had really mixed feelings about going and it was absolutely heart rending leaving the kids.”
Heather has four grandchildren and always said she would retire when she celebrated a certain big birthday and when she was young enough to be useful and supportive to them.
She may also do advocacy work in the future.
However, she admits she will ‘keep my ear very close to the ground’ to hear what happens to her former patients.
“I was part of so many families and it’s tough leaving them. I will miss them all and it’s gong to be very difficult keeping an eye from a distance without sticking my nose in!”