“Of course, you’ll never be a neurologist – you’re a woman…”
It’s an outdated attitude at best, but one from Dr Camille Carroll’s history that draws a laugh as she sits in her office as an Associate Professor at the University of Plymouth, and an Honorary Consultant Neurologist at University Hospitals Plymouth NHS Trust. Surrounded by books and recalling the many turning points of her career, there could be no one better placed to fly in the face of gender stereotypes, while continuing to exude a kindness that has seen her change lives.
Camille remembers the start of her journey as a child: “When I was 12, I read one of my parents’ books called ‘Dibs in Search of Self’. It was about how a psychologist worked with a child to come out of himself and find his place in the world, which I thought was amazing.”
Initially torn between psychology and psychiatry, she applied to medical school and it was during those preparations that she first came across Parkinson’s – a neurological condition that can lead to shaking, stiffness, and difficulty with movement. More likely to affect older people, Parkinson’s has become more prevalent in the last 30 years and is currently the fastest-growing neurological condition in the world. Inspired by the interventions being explored, the condition became Camille’s focus.
But when deciding her speciality during pre-clinical training, she was told she wouldn’t be a neurologist because of her gender. She developed a love of neuroscience, and started her quest to smash through the glass ceiling by undertaking a PhD based in the laboratory investigating Parkinson’s. She then used her spare time in her next destination – clinical training at the University of Oxford – to contribute to research evaluating patients who’d had brain surgery for their Parkinson’s. Camille had to measure patients’ movements using a standardised rating scale, and her passion for listening to patients was something that stuck with her throughout her career.
As a junior doctor in London, I worked with an inspiring physician who really emphasised the importance of listening to what patients are telling you. We must always be guided by the patient when delivering care.
That belief, and the desire to make a difference for patients, has led to Camille’s current research interests, now far removed from the laboratory: clinical trials of neuroprotective therapies that might slow Parkinson’s, and working with patients to improve the ways in which those trials are developed and delivered. She is also passionate about improving care of people with Parkinson’s, which certainly feeds into her current project, Developing Home-based Parkinson’s care. The multi-partnership scheme supports people with Parkinson’s to understand and manage their symptoms when they can, understand when to ask for help, and involves them using a wrist-worn device to monitor their condition at home.
“The existing Parkinson’s care service sees patients come to the hospital clinic once every 12 months or so regardless of how they’re feeling – which is unsatisfactory for healthcare staff, and is arduous for both patient and carer and fails to meet their needs. This new service aims to make things easier for everyone involved, and empower people with Parkinson’s to take control of their condition.”
The service is being evaluated in Plymouth and, once refined, could be rolled out across the UK.
So how did she end up in Plymouth in the first place?
After a junior doctor post at the acclaimed National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery in Queen’s Square, London, Camille chose to continue her clinical training in Plymouth thanks to her admiration of Professor of Neurology, John Zajicek. Meeting and working with John would become one of her most important decisions.
“When I first came to Plymouth, I was blown away by the forward thinking approach of the environment I found myself in. At that time, Plymouth’s Derriford Hospital was one of the only hospitals in the country that ran a proper ‘acute neurology’ service, seeing everyone who came in with a neurological problem at the front door. Plans were being made for a new medical school, the Peninsula Clinical Trials Unit was just being established, and I could see John’s vision was to expand and support academic neurology.”
“It was during this time that I ran my first trial. John was doing research on cannabis and multiple sclerosis, and I managed to run a placebo-controlled study investigating the use of cannabis in Parkinson’s, learning from John and the super team in the clinical trials unit (some of whom I still work with today). It was a great design, being completed within six months, and taught me a lot about the mechanics of running a trial.”
She also grew to love the area itself – so much so that, following rotations in Bristol and Birmingham, she decided to come back when she received a grant from the Medical Research Council (MRC) to boost her skillset.
“My husband and I were in Birmingham at the time and he had always wanted to emigrate to New Zealand but, when I received the MRC grant, we made a deal: we agreed that we would move to Plymouth, so that I could return to the academic environment I knew I could flourish in, and if I hadn’t made a go of it in five years, we would move to the southern hemisphere. I then transferred my grant investigating molecular biological aspects of Parkinson’s and we never left.”
After her grant ended, she was on six-month rolling contracts and she credits John’s mentorship and support for ‘keeping her going’. The mentorship and family friendship endured – John’s wife is godmother to one of Camille’s four children.
But she always relied on herself to make an impact in her field.
She has led a genetics study in 32 sites across the country, achieving a collection of 2700 samples; she has led the largest multi-site academic neuroprotective trial in Parkinson’s, which completed in 2020; she has led University Hospitals Plymouth to being one of the leading clinical research delivery sites for Parkinson’s in the UK, and the Plymouth Parkinson’s service has won 2 national awards for excellence; and her academic endeavour and networking skills have seen her become the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) national specialty lead for Neurodegenerative Diseases.
Throughout these successes, she has always maintained, and continues to develop, relationships with patients and local branches of Parkinson’s UK, ensuring that the voices of people with Parkinson’s are heard in all of her endeavours.
“Being in the South West, where there’s a stable patient population and a small number of secondary care providers, you can a build good relationship with the patient base and make sure that the work is having an impact where it’s needed the most.”
Getting a permanent contract just before her final maternity leave, Camille recalls the ‘stroke of luck’ that helped secure her largest clinical trial to date.
“I was able to benefit from the good relationship that John had developed with the amazing team at the Cure Parkinson’s Trust,” she said. “And was supported by them to undertake a trial to investigate whether simvastatin – a drug typically used for lowering cholesterol – could reduce the rate of Parkinson’s progression.”
The four-year trial, known as PD-STAT, concluded in 2020 and showed that simvastatin holds no promise as a protective therapy, but Camille was not downhearted.
“There are lots of positives to come out of this study, particularly the extent to which we were able to involve participants and study sites across the country. PD-STAT has taught us a huge amount about how to improve the way we design and deliver clinical trials in Parkinson’s and this knowledge will be very useful in designing future trials.”
Listening to patients has helped her have an impact, listening to science has enabled her to provide the best care possible, and listening to herself has ensured her career has gone from strength to strength in spite of early discouragement.
Now, as a leading expert in a condition set to affect 20% more people by 2025, we must ensure that we listen to her too.