Popular boss of borough's hospice speaks about retirement
Dr Alan Baron is bringing to an end his nine years in the top job at Wigan and Leigh Hospice (WLH) and his two-decade association with the charity.
He arrived at the Hindley-based charity in 2001 and successfully applied to become chief executive in 2012.
Dr Baron, who had his final day in the office this week, has seen the hospice expand its services dramatically to look after patients at its Kildare Street headquarters, in their own homes and in care homes.
Under his watch he has also welcomed royalty through the doors, donned his hard hat to oversee major construction projects and been a familiar face at the charity’s extraordinary array of annual and one-off fund-raising events.
In the past year he has also had to steer WLH through one of the greatest challenges it has faced in almost four decades of looking after people in the borough in the shape of the Covid-19 pandemic.
A born-and-bred Wiganer who now lives in Billinge, Dr Baron spoke of his pride at working for such an important hometown institution, described in glowing terms the team of staff and volunteers who provide the hospice’s services and how difficult a decision it was to bring his working career to a close.
Dr Baron, 63, said: “The idea of retiring is an unsettling one, especially when you have worked all your life, which luckily I have.
“I was originally going to retire last autumn and told the board that was my plan, but when Covid hit in March I put that on hold. I had thought that would be sufficient time for us to be out of all this, but of course we’re not.
“After 20 years in relatively senior roles you do start to think about putting the weight of responsibility down. This job has been all-consuming, it has really been my life.
“Being a small cog in this whole that supports local people who are part of my own community in Wigan has been a huge thing for me. It makes you feel like you’re giving something back.
“It has been a hugely difficult decision to make. I will miss it dreadfully. We’ve got a wonderful team of staff and volunteers and community at the hospice.
“But I saw colleagues in similar positions in other hospices have also been retiring and I thought it was the right time for new blood with newer and fresher ideas.
“I think of it like a relay race. The hospice is like a precious baton.
“In the past few years I’ve kept hold of it and handled it as safely and securely as I could but there comes a time when you need to pass it on to somebody else.”
The final stages of Dr Baron’s time holding the hospice baton have inevitably been dominated by the novel coronavirus.
As with pretty much every other profession and area of society, Covid-19 has wrought fundamental changes to how the hospice works while also bringing particular challenges to a field which relies on personal and sensitive treatment.
Dr Baron said: “Covid is up there with all the changes everybody has faced in their careers or lifetimes.
“For us it has been about ensuring staff stay as connected and as supported as they possibly can. Connection is relatively easy in the hospice, you can wander round the corridors and talk to people, but all of that has disappeared in Covid times.
“We’ve got staff working from home, front-line nurse specialists who are normally visiting people at home are now mostly doing that by phone, and care home training is being done over Zoom.
“It has been really challenging to keep the organisation together but also really important.
“The hospice is not currently the vibrant building people are used to seeing. We’ve had to restrict visiting, departments are working independently of each other to reduce the infection risks and we’ve had to follow guidance that for a hospice is hard to swallow.
“The other challenge is the financial impact. Our shops, which are a major contributor to hospice finances, were shut for months last year and fund-raising events were cancelled.”
Despite that, Dr Baron says he maintains the hospice does have a bright future under his successor, Jo Carby, who is stepping into the top job from her current role as clinical director.
He said: “I remain an optimist. The hospice is well established and well loved. So many people support us.
“We’ve got a great chief executive taking over in Jo, The staff and volunteers are extremely dedicated and committed to the organisation and the trustees have supported the executive team superbly. They will continue to make the right decisions.
“The next 12 months will be challenging, there is no question about that, but the future is bright and hopefully the hospice will still be here in another 40 years.”
Coming from a business and retail background to WLH, Dr Baron spoke of the emotional impact of hearing first-hand what a difference the hospice’s state-of-the-art palliative care makes to Wiganers and their loved ones.
He said: “The highlights for me have been those times when I’ve interacted with patients, carers and relatives. You can sometimes feel a bit remote making strategic decisions and looking at long-term planning, so the opportunities to meet patients and families in the patient rooms, in their homes or at events like the remembrance services or fund-raisers and have a chat has been deeply moving.
“Speaking to people at carol services or going round the inpatient unit at Christmastime have been particular highlights.
“I will never forget those constant reminders of the compassion and expertise of the staff. It is a real privilege to look after people at that point in their lives and you can’t help but be moved by those conversations.”
The hospice has also considerably expanded during Dr Baron’s time there, with the building and opening of the Woodview Centre housing therapy facilities and out-patient services, the renovation of the main headquarters building and the growth of the innovative Hospice in Your Home and Hospice in Your Care Home projects which have taken top-quality palliative care out into the borough.
Dr Baron also hailed the increase in partnership working with NHS Wigan Borough Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) and Wrightington, Wigan and Leigh (WWL) Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, saying the hospice is now seen as a key part of the borough’s health systems and this is a particular source of pride for him.
The word about the borough’s work has also been spread further as he has sat on a number of national hospice advisory boards.
He has also greatly enjoyed welcoming community groups and Wiganers through the doors of the hospice, saying there is still a need to put aside misconceptions about end-of-life care and the places it is done.
He said: “We have increased the number of beds and moved further into the community, which could not have been more needed in the past year with the problems in care homes.
“The new bedrooms are modern, with patio doors onto the beautiful gardens which are now a secluded haven.
“We’ve shown so many people around the hospice and dispelled myths about it being a dark, scary or dismal place. That includes the groups of school children we’ve brought in.
“We can change people’s views and hopefully they will take that message home to their families so if someone needs hospice care in the future they won’t think they don’t want to use the hospice.
“You receive such a warm welcome from the moment you walk through the door, you can’t really feel ill-at-ease. That’s one of the wonderful things about the hospice.”
Dr Baron has also attended a range of fund-raisers the hospice puts on each year as around two-thirds of its income is derived from charitable sources.
These have included popular nights such as the Strictly Come Dancing evenings, participation events like the Colour Run and the ladies’ midnight walks and more off-the-wall ideas such as the huge water slide which was placed down Standishgate in the middle of Wigan.
For now Dr Baron says he has very few plans for his retirement, although there will be more family time with wife Elaine and their sons Adam, who teaches psychology at Edinburgh University, and Daniel who works for the Cabinet Office in London.
He says he has no plans to take on part-time or voluntary work commitments, but is also ruling nothing out.
He said: “I’m going to take my time and make decisions in a while when I’ve had chance to assimilate the idea of retirement.
“The first thing is to reassess what I want to do. We’ve got some walking planned and catching up on my reading as well as spending time visiting my kids and having some day trips out.
“I may decide to do some writing or get involved in some way in the charitable sector again. I never say never, but I will just have to see.”
If you value what we do and are able to support us, a digital subscription is just £1 for your first month. Try us today by clicking here and viewing our offers.