7 October 2021
Elaine Willmore is Head of Research and Development for Therapy at Gloucestershire Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust. This month, she starts her PhD with the University of Gloucestershire, looking at social prescribing.
It’s Friday afternoon and, having worked as a Physiotherapist for the last 22 years, I have just finished my last clinic. Next week, I start my PhD with a studentship funded by the University of Gloucestershire, NIHR ARC West and Gloucestershire Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust. It slightly feels like I have reached a false summit – about to start a hard, uphill slog that will hopefully take me to a point I have long been aiming for, but with the knowledge that I have actually already been climbing for over 15 years!
This blog is about my journey so far.
In 2005 when I had been qualified for six years, I knocked on my manager Natalie Beswetherick’s (now Director of Practice and Development at the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy) door and said that I was thinking of doing an MSc. She swivelled round in her chair to face me, put her fingers together underneath her chin and said “I think that’s a good idea, I think you would be good at that.” Funding was tight at the time and I had to pay a fair amount myself but over the three years, Natalie and Head of Outpatients Julie Knight found what money they could to support me.
Julie also encouraged me to develop my interest treating people with complex shoulder problems and to take on the role of site investigator with the Managing Injuries of the Neck (MINT) trial with Sallie Lamb’s team including Esther Williamson and Mark Williams. During my MSc, I got married, moved house, had a baby and whilst doing my dissertation, I was pregnant with my second child. I was suffering with awful sickness but I had already used up my extension with my first round of maternity leave. One day when I was due to go to university for a day of testing, I felt so ill I could barely turn my head. A friend came to look after my son and I sat on the bottom of the stairs, hanging onto the bannister sobbing that I couldn’t even face getting in the car, let alone drive to Cardiff. But, in the way that only true friends can, she declared “Elaine, either you go, or you quit.” So, off I went, armed with polo mints and pickled onion monster munch and somehow got through it, finding out I had passed the same week as I had the baby!
By this point, I was also becoming more involved with the British Elbow and Shoulder Society (BESS). Through this organisation I met many wonderful mentors and colleagues such as Jo Gibson who encouraged me to write, publish and get involved. A well-known clinician and researcher, Jeremy Lewis, once told me that if I ever wanted to give up physiotherapy, I should take up writing which for someone who only did science A-Levels, realising I could write came as a bit of a surprise! Anju Jaggi, an expert shoulder Physio, introduced me to Sally Hopewell at the University of Oxford who was running the GRASP shoulder trial. This provided my first opportunity to be a local Principal Investigator. We recruited 120 patients to that study and it gave me real insight into what research, delivered by a world class team looks like.
It was also around this time that I encountered my first real experience of discrimination. When applying for a Fellowship I was asked in my interview (consisting of an all-male panel), “who was going to be looking after my children whilst I was off doing all this research?” I was so upset and outraged but again, there were those around me who stopped me spinning, turned me back in the right direction and helped me crack on.
One such person was Cliona McRobert. Having met her originally whilst she was doing her PhD, she phoned me up one day and with her wonderful Irish accent said “right, how are we going to get you moving forwards?” That path took me to my NIHR Masters to Doctorate bridging programme and to Professor Danielle van der Windt based at Keele University. Under her expert guidance, we spent two years working to publish two papers and put together an NIHR Doctoral Research Fellowship Application. I knew how competitive the awards were but when I didn’t even get shortlisted for an interview I was gutted. I felt like I had run out of road. Where do I go next? Am I even good enough try again?
At this point, I also felt incredibly guilty. Having also been so well supported by Dave Taylor, my head of service, consultant Physio Susie Durrell and of course Danielle, I wondered if they thought that all that investment in me had been a massive waste of time and part of me felt that I had let everyone down. But, where one door closes, a window opens. When I didn’t get the DRF, our Trust Chief Executive Deborah Lee offered to sit down with me to discuss what other options I might have. Around this time the PhD studentship had opened up but there were so many complications with funding I didn’t even know if it was worth applying. By this point though, I had grown thicker skin so I decided to just put my cards on the table and ask! To my utter delight, Deb along with Dave and Steve Hams our Chief Nurse managed to come to an arrangement which allowed me to throw my hat in the ring and this time, I was successful.
So, as I prepare to get on the rollercoaster that I know will be PhD life, I reflect on just how many people have gone out of their way to support me. I have named several here but there is easily a village worth of others who have helped me get to this point. For those who showed me how to use Mendeley, made sense of survey software, shared their applications, processed my chi-squares, covered my clinics, talked to me, encouraged me, name dropped me to other people, brought me wine and dished out hugs – thank you! On Monday, I start a whole new chapter. I’ll let you know how it goes!