Case study

Researcher driven to help the families of Traumatic Brain Injury patients

Dr Charlie Whiffin is an Associate Professor of Nursing. She is carrying out important work on how Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) affects families. Her journey began when she was working as a care assistant in a nursing home.

A change in outlook

The nursing home job changed Charlie’s outlook completely. She explains: “I realised how much I loved working so closely with people and how rewarding it was to be able to make a difference to people’s lives. I applied for an undergraduate nursing degree at Liverpool John Moores and never looked back.”  

Then, as a registered adult nurse, Charlie stepped into the field of neurosurgery and quickly became concerned with the trauma families experience after a relative’s Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI).   

As she progressed into higher education as a lecturer, delivering pre-registration nursing education, Charlie's interest in families experiencing TBI remained. She loved her student-facing role, but her frustration at the lack of support for families drove her to embark on a PhD.

A PhD in family experience

Charlie studied her PhD on the family experience of TBI in her first year at the University of Southampton, under the expert supervision of Dr Chris Bailey, Dr Caroline Ellis-Hill, Dr Nicki Jarret and Professor Peter Hutchinson. The study demonstrated the trauma, suffering and personal changes families themselves faced after TBI. 

It was after the PhD was completed that Charlie was able to collaborate with leading experts Dr Fergus Gracey and Dr Caroline Ellis-Hill to complete a meta-synthesis about the experiences of families following TBI which was published in the leading nursing journal ‘The International Journal of Nursing Studies’. This was instrumental in catapulting Charlie’s career and confidence. 

She explains: “I am most proud of the meta-synthesis on the family experience of traumatic brain injury for a number of reasons. The study was really hard, locating, analysing and synthesising all the qualitative research but it was also creative, thought-provoking and engaging. Feedback from reviewers was also very generous saying the paper had the potential to make a profound impact in practice.” 

New opportunities

From there, still fueled by the feeling that more could be done and a desire for a more research-centred role, Charlie reached out to people to explore new opportunities for mentoring and research projects with other leading researchers in her field. It was at this point that Charlie took the next step in her career. With an opportunity to work in the National Institute for Health and Social Care Research (NIHR) Global Health Research Group on Neurotrauma at the University of Cambridge, Charlie grabbed it with both hands. Charlie was then a co-applicant for the subsequent NIHR Global Health Research Group on Acquired Brain and Spine Injury and is the lead for Community Engagement and Involvement.

Anchor Point

Charlie’s research throughout her career has always been focused on giving families the best possible support and it has led to the founding of Anchor Point. Anchor Point is a national association that aims to make a difference in the lives of families following brain injury by driving change. Charlie founded Anchor Point in 2020 and recently the group responded to the Government’s call for evidence for their Acquired Brain Injury strategy with their message of the need for family-centred approaches and appropriate, resourced, family support.  


Inspired by the importance of the work around supporting families following a relative’s TBI, Charlie is involved in Doctoral studies ranging from communication with families at discharge following brain injury, technology-led solutions to long-term follow-up after TBI in Low- and Middle- Income Countries (LMIC), carer needs and the Care Act, the lived experience of sub-arachnoid haemorrhage and the competing demands of nurses providing curative and palliative care.

Charlie is also now preparing her own studies including an investigation of the role of nurses and allied health professionals in delivering safe and effective neurosurgical care in LMICs and the use of a specific approach to narrative storytelling to support family members make sense of TBI. This latter study received £140,000 from the NIHR Research for Patient Benefit Funding and will involve, alongside Charlie, researchers Dr Fergus Gracey (University of East Anglia), Dr Caroline Ellis-Hill (Bournemouth University) and Dr Alyson Norman (University of Plymouth). The project will help families tell their own stories of TBI and the impact it has had on them. The researchers and two family members who have helped shape the project will start to deliver it in March 2023 for 18 months. 

An inspiring journey 

Charlie’s transition from a discipline such as nursing, which doesn’t historically have a strong research foundation, combined with the teaching load in pre-registration programmes makes her research journey inspiring. It has taken huge determination, resilience and commitment. With Charlie’s recent promotion to Association Professor (Research), she has shown that a research pathway for a nursing academic is possible and hopes that she encourages others to follow. 

Charlie Whiffin

Dr Charlie Whiffin
Associate Professor in Nursing

Charlie's specialist interest area is the impact of acquired brain injury on the family. Charlie is currently examining the potential for storytelling techniques to improve family well-being and adjustment. Charlie is also investigating the role of non-medical providers in the provision of safe effective neurosurgical care in low-and middle-income countries.

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