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Podiatrist, Richard Roll – “It’s one of the few things I’ve ever been really certain of in my life”

18th November 2019

From the armed forces, to industrial technology, to Podiatry, at the heart of Richard Roll’s career has been a fascination with mechanics. He tells us how he found his way into Podiatry via an unlikely route.

When Richard Roll decided to become a Podiatrist, he came to it with a fascination for engineering and machinery that had been a theme throughout his life.

As a 17-year-old he joined the Air Force, where he became an engineer, working with fighter planes. Then, upon leaving the forces 14 years later, he moved into automation robotics – assembling and servicing robotic arms for factory production lines.

Where did he get the idea from to go into Podiatry? “A friend suggested it to me a good few years ago – maybe back in 2001. I looked into it on the internet and realised there was much more to it than cutting nails. I just got really into it – I found the biomechanics bit fascinating. Coming from an engineering and robotics background I thought the way it all works is fascinating.”

As he researched studying Podiatry further, he became more and more interested. “The more you scratch the surface, the more interesting it becomes.”

Richard visited Southampton University to find out about the course and was able to do an access course. He was so certain that this was the route he now wanted to take; he announced his intentions to leave his job as soon as he enrolled on the access course. Some might say this was a bit premature, but a year later, having secured his place at university, he duly left and began full-time study. “It’s one of the few things I’ve ever been really certain of in my life,” he recalls. “I just knew I would qualify as a Podiatrist and this would be my career. There was no back up plan – I knew I wasn’t going to need one.”

Richard qualified in 2007 and today works as an independent practitioner with a small clinic in Wokingham.

Lying at the heart of Richard’s fascination with Podiatry is biomechanics.

When working in robotics he installed and tested robotic arms, manufactured in Japan by Panasonic and used in production lines for companies including Sony, IBM, Toshiba and Citroen. The work was busy, with long periods away from home as he would make site visits across the UK and Ireland, often keeping him away from family.

For Richard there is a direct link between servicing electronic arms and other types of limb. The foot and lower limb is, at root, just another machine system.

“It’s all basically the same, whether it’s an aircraft control system, a factory production line or a person’s foot. In electronics you have motors, actuators and a computer. The equivalent in people is nerves, muscle and brain. Both are complex feedback systems. The big difference with the body is that everyone is different. If you’ve got an aircraft it is the same as the one next to it, and how you fix one is likely to be the same as you would fix another. Bodies are different – each is unique.”

So, while the mechanics of humans and machines can be understood the same way, a different approach is needed for treating the problems. He continues: “People are more varied and more challenging. With treatment plans, for example, we must consider socio economic and psychological aspects. Some people will do exercises, but others won’t, and as Podiatrists we have to work with that challenge.”

Working with patients to resolve problems gives Richard the opportunity to explain how biomechanics works. “You explain to people that it’s not just their foot that’s the problem. It’s all tied into the rest of their body. Their neck and shoulder alignment can affect the back, putting strain through the buttocks and affecting thigh movement. That’s what could be causing the problem – it might be your foot, or you could develop a problem with your knee. What’s great is that something simple like yoga courses can help so much by helping to fix those factors which are causing the problems.”

For Richard, Podiatry has been rewarding as well as interesting. “A career in Podiatry is what you make it,” he says.

“For me, it’s about enjoying what I do and feeling like I’m making a difference to people’s lives.”

Richard’s patient story.

I’ve been treating a man for about four years who, when I met him, couldn’t walk 150 yards. His toes had clawed terribly and were very retracted. He had corns on the ends of his toes and nail deformity. Treating him has been a long process. To start with it was nail care and corns. Then I introduced some semi-compressed felt to support the toes and take pressure off. This relieved some pain and made him more comfortable. As he gradually became more mobile, we introduced some exercises to try and straighten the toes and adapt the feet a little. I found lots of exercises on the internet which I wrote up and gave him as a leaflet. Because things improved, he stuck at these and things started to improve more. He got involved in yoga – which helped his back and loosened other things up. His progress has been like a slow snowball effect and he has got better over time. Now he is very active and walks 2-3 miles a day.

The thing to remember is that it’s taken a lifetime for feet to get into the state they’re in – they don’t get better overnight but can improve with time and dedication.  

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