We Believe in Science is an Ensemble series partly inspired by Hillary Clinton's 2016 quote - but equally the incredible work of scientists and experts during this global pandemic. We'll celebrate those championing facts, evidence, research and learned knowledge because now more than ever, in the age of Covid, QAnon, and wellness influencers, we know that these values are essential.
Dr Claire McLintock dreamt of being a doctor as a young girl in Scotland and has become a leader in the medical world – as a haematologist and obstetric physician at National Women’s Health, Auckland City Hospital.
Forging ahead with an impressive career while living with an incurable cancer has only magnified her compassion and conviction. In 2019 she received an Order of New Zealand Merit for her service to society, and she continues to inspire a new generation of scientists and doctors wanting to make a difference. It was an honour to talk with her.
“I wanted to be a doctor from when I was a little girl. I don't know why. I don't come from a big medical family. But my dad was a scientist, a chemist. He worked at the university in Dundee. And my mum was a maths teacher.
I managed to study medicine at Edinburgh University, which is exactly where I wanted to go. I did all my undergraduate medical work in Edinburgh and then I decided I wanted to come to New Zealand because it was pretty full-on being a doctor in the UK in those days.
I came to New Zealand in 1990 and fortunately I did haematology in one of my junior jobs. It was a really interesting subject at the time, and still is now. You can study blood so easily, so you can find out what's causing an illness easily. I think the rest of medicine has caught up a bit like that, but haematology definitely led the way in terms of progressing knowledge and immediately applying it to clinical practice; we call it bench-to-bedside.
I did extra study to be a haematologist specialist after having my first child, Hart. I was very interested in how haematology impacted women's health, especially things like blood clotting with women who are on the pill or pregnant.
I finished my training before I got pregnant with my second daughter, Vita. So it was a bit of a struggle, really, doing exams when you had a two-year-old. But you learn to make the best of the time that you've got.
I was trying to go back to London and do some work in obstetric haematology, and I met this woman here who suggested that because that wasn't funded, I'd find it quite difficult having two small children and no income living in London – so maybe I should stay here and help her out with writing a research paper that she was interested in.
We realised there was a lot more synergy between women's health and pregnancy complications and haematology and blood clotting. That opened up my eyes to thinking this is something that I could do. It became even more interesting to me when I saw that blood clotting was responsible for a number of complications women get in pregnancy, particularly one called preeclampsia. It was kind of meant to be when I met this woman, and so I did stay here.
I didn't have a grand plan about what I wanted to do. Doors just open for you sometimes. You meet people who you find a synergy with, and that leads you onto more and more. I decided that I wanted to do not just haematology, but more obstetric medicine.
I look after women with heart problems or any sort of problem that might complicate their pregnancy. I did a bit of a step sideways. But I've got to say haematology is my first love. It's a really good, challenging and intriguing subject. It's definitely where my passion is.
If you get good care, having a baby can be a really empowering experience. And so the women that I look after have a bit more of a difficult time because they've got medical problems that make their pregnancies a little bit more tricky to manage. What I want to do for those women is give them the best experience they can have, give them the best outcome, and support them to believe that they can have a baby naturally.
I think there's a lot of mythology out there, suggesting to women that you can't possibly do this. Whereas, actually, I think that most women can do it, and we just need to change the narrative a little bit and support them in understanding what they can do, and where midwives and doctors can come and help them... to have the choice, whatever that choice might be.
When I think about women's health, I think about it from the very beginning of their lives. As you're growing up, through adolescence, if you choose to become pregnant through pregnancy, after the baby's born, being a mother, thinking about mental health and then when you go through menopause and all those different things. I see it as a whole cycle of a woman. I think it would be nicer if we were able to focus like that, rather than just the disease processes.
My family really supported education and women. I have a very strong feminist viewpoint in the world, and I think with support women can make choices. Being healthy is part of that.
I'm very proud of the work that we do. We look after a lot of women in this country, relatively, who've got a metal heart valve that makes the pregnancy really quite complicated because they have to take blood thinners throughout pregnancy. And I think our work here has really led the way to make other people in the world think about alternative ways to deliver that blood-thinning medication to women when they're pregnant. I've been given the opportunity to explore alternatives and explore different ways of treating women in different conditions. Building up international networks of other scientists and other clinicians is the way to do that.
I got elected to the council of the International Society on Thrombosis and Haemostasis (ISTH), which is the leading global organisation of people interested in blood clotting and bleeding. I got chosen to be their president from 2018 to 2020. That means that the best people in the world were saying we respect you and we're happy for you to be our leader.
It's really hard to be a woman and a mother and have a life and have a life in science and medicine because there's not enough time in the day to do everything. I've been lucky. I've had a husband [artist John Reynolds] who took over a lot of the childcare duties so that I was able to go to work and go to conferences.
But it does come at a cost because if you're busy in your work and your career, then you will have less time with your children and getting that balance right is difficult. And I haven't done it right all the time. I've made mistakes. I try to be a role model to my daughters, but probably they would have liked me to be at home a bit more.
It's not perfect for men either. There are men who spend too much time at work who should spend more time at home. So we have to try and find ways that we can make it easier.
It still is a pretty sexist world out there. If we're going to have a speaking panel or a specialist invited to speak, we're still working hard to make sure that there's equity of access for men and women and also people from different ethnic backgrounds. You have to try and make sure when you're looking for equity, it’s not just male-female equity, even if we're going to go for binary genders.
You've got to constantly think about that. And I'm really sorry, but many men don't have a problem with having a panel of five people talking about a subject who are all men – we call that a ‘manel’. It does not occur to some people and not just men, sometimes it doesn't occur to a woman either.
It’s reported that when you're at a big international meeting, whether it's on zoom or face-to-face, it's not that uncommon that when the people are addressing the woman speakers, they call them by their first name, but when they're talking to the men speakers, they'll call them professor whatever or doctor whatever. And that's kind of a subtle thing, but why should that be?
One of the things I did when I was the president was develop a diversity inclusion and equity task force to address these issues. It's been shown that if you have a more broadly representative group of people contributing to your organisation, you have a better outcome. You have a broader reach.
Compared to maybe a hundred years ago, we might be getting a bit closer [to equality in medicine], but we're not as close as we like to think we are. When I was young, I thought we would have been closer than we are now.
I had breast cancer in 2003 when my kids were really little. It's the sort of breast cancer that classically will spread in a small number of women. When it returned and distantly spread to my stomach (in 2017), I was on a medication for almost four years that initially wasn't available in the country and then when it was available, it wasn’t funded. I played a small role in getting it funded, but there were other women who've played a much bigger role. I was fortunate that my friends and my community got together and raised a lot of money for me to be able to have the drug when it wasn't funded because I wouldn't have been able to afford that.
Maybe there's more awareness [of women’s health and cancers], but I don't know if we're getting the resources that we need quite yet. One of the things in cancer medicine is that more and more drugs come out, even in my field in haematology, that we don't have access to. So that's not fair. That's not equitable.
I don't know the answer because a lot of the focus seems to be on prevention, but prevention doesn't stop all of the cancers from happening. What is the reason why one in nine women in New Zealand gets breast cancer? We don't know. Yes, alcohol might play a role, but women aren't going to suddenly stop drinking alcohol and then not get breast cancer. They'll still get breast cancer. There's no fault.
It's important to try and take steps to prevent illness, but not all cancer can be prevented. In fact, most of it can't. Most of them, we don't know what on earth is the major cause of them.
In January this year, my cancer came back in my tummy. It's called the peritoneum, the inside of your abdomen. I was pretty sick, so I've had a change in medication. Just a standard chemotherapy drug, which is now funded, and it's working!
But the bummer is that with cancer, once it's spread, you're never going to get rid of it. It responds to a number of different treatments, but ultimately, it's not going to respond. I don't know when that's going to be – I’m hoping it's going to be a while from now.
It’s another spanner in the works. But I believe information is power. Sometimes it's frightening, but ultimately once you get over the fear, I think it takes me to a better place to have the knowledge and to be able to understand the discussions that I have with my doctor about what my treatment should be.
As a doctor, what it makes you realise is once you've had a diagnosis like cancer, any investigation you have makes you frightened because you don't know what the results are going to be. You're no longer that naive person who thinks everything's going to be fine. It’s helped me to relate to my patients. I'm gentler with them when I want to do blood tests and share the results. It’s made me a more compassionate doctor to understand what people go through. Even if it's not serious, it doesn't matter. People are still freaked out. You have to care about how they feel.
It's also made me enjoy life a bit more too. I have this phrase that my friend came up with: ‘Don't delay fun’. None of us know what's around the corner. Don't put stuff off. I think it's made me more in the world. Also, you just have to get on with it. I don't want to waste my life thinking about how things could be better or different. For me, this is my life – so I want to make the most of it.
I'm hopefully going to get a sabbatical this year. I've got to update my clinical report of all the women we've looked after with mechanical heart valves. I think that's really going to be helpful information to tell people what it's like to look after these women.
One thing that's really great is I can see that I have inspired a lot of younger doctors to want to do work in women's health and working in obstetric medicine and obstetric haematology. In my leadership role in ISTH, one of the things that I really felt proud about is that I’m an inspiration to younger women.
I think the most important thing if you're a leader in the world is to make sure that you bring on the leaders of tomorrow. And so that's what I want to keep doing. I want to keep inspiring more junior doctors, more junior scientists, to follow a career, but also make sure that they have a good life as well.”