Early last month, after almost four decades in the medical field, William Carroll was named Western Australian of the Year in the business and professions category.
As with most of the accolades bestowed on him, the WA Day honour was accepted humbly by the 63-year-old neurologist, widely known across Australia as a leader in his field.
To his peers, Professor Carroll's knowledge of multiple sclerosis is almost unrivalled. He is the chairman of MS Research Australia's (MSRA) scientific committee, a member of the boards of MSRA and Multiple Sclerosis Australia and has sat on the board of the MS Society of WA for 16 years.
But to the hundreds of West Australians living with the sometimes crippling degenerative condition of the nervous system, Professor Carroll is a godsend. The patients he describes as "brave and incredibly resilient" live a better quality of life because of the work being carried out by the father of three and his colleagues.
Despite the long hours and many puzzling aspects of the condition - and with the prospects of a cure growing each year - the man affectionately known to most as "Bill" still wakes up every morning excited by the challenge.
"You are only as old as you feel and I still don't feel any different than when I started," he said. "I wake up every morning feeling lucky to be doing what I love. When you can't wait to get to work every day, you really can't call it work."
For 15 years Professor Carroll has witnessed the devastating effects that MS has on patients, starting with tingling, numbness and pain and for some, ending with being wheelchair or bed-bound. The symptoms include memory and sensory problems, paralysis, fatigue and dizziness, which make everyday activities a challenge.
"The hardiness of patients and the will to survive and recover is amazing," Professor Carroll said. "The human body's capacity to rejuvenate is incredible and if you give patients the right medical support and psychological assistance, then you can get some surprising and terrific results.
"Our MS patients are incredibly resilient, despite past years of experiencing quick-fix treatments that have been proposed to be cures. In the past 10 years, we have started to see treatments that are really effective, which is very stimulating for us clinicians but it's also great to see the positive effect on people with MS. Just to know that there is now real help available makes an enormous difference.
"Before these effective treatments, patients were dealing with the unknown. They would ask themselves, 'Am I going to be severely disabled by this, will I lose my vision, my husband or my job, or will I be one of the lucky ones?'
"MS patients have suffered not just from the disease taking a toll on their bodies but from the collateral effect on their lives and those of their families."
While his dedication to neurology is unwavering and he counts his colleagues across the country as part of his family, Professor Carroll was not always destined for medicine.
Growing up in country WA, including Esperance and Narembeen in the 1950s and 1960s, he took what seemed a natural path to the University of WA and the study of agricultural science in the late 1960s.
"During that first year we had to do a biology course and when I did some reading on how muscles and nerves conduct impulses, and how muscles contract, it looked really exciting," he said. "I started to take an interest in the physiological aspects of biology.
"And a fellow who I was surfing with told me about the medical degree he was doing, and his second year course on the structure and function of the nervous system sounded much more appealing than what I was going to be doing."
After several years at Royal Perth and Sir Charles Gairdner hospitals, the now trainee neurologist moved to London in 1977, spending three years at the National Hospital for Nervous Diseases and later six months in the United States soaking up as much knowledge as possible in the world-renowned neurological centres at the Mayo Clinic, University of Pennsylvania and Massachusetts General Hospital.
"I got to pick the eyes out of neurology on a scholarship," he said. "That stint in the USA led to some great experimental work in optic nerve disease, which then led me into treating and researching multiple sclerosis.
"I'm attracted to things where the challenges are the greatest. There seemed to be a lot of work to be done in the area of diseases affecting the nervous system. We started to understand after a time what happens to the nervous system when there is damage and it was a very exciting time."
After returning to WA in 1981 with his wife, Kate, and young family, his quest for an MS cure and a better future for patients was fuelled by a robust local interest in the disease.
"WA is sometimes viewed as being out of the mainstream and a backwater of sorts but, in fact, there's a very supportive environment here. If you have a very stable (patient) population, as WA has, you can get organised and achieve quite a bit.
"One of the biggest highs was showing through research in the 1990s that the nervous system could actually repair itself and finding the cells responsible for the repair processes.
"Indeed, in early MS when the disease is stopped by treatments we now have, people actually improve due to these very same repair processes."The cure is happening as we speak but it's not complete, so we are now working incrementally towards a range of treatments where, in the near future, we can tailor specific treatments to certain patient profiles."
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