Two strong female role models inspired Catherine Hernon to follow a career in medicine.
Now, the consultant plastic and reconstructive surgeon is doing groundbreaking work to restore movement to patients affected by limb paralysis caused by stroke, brain or nerve injuries.
Catherine, who works at Spire Leeds Hospital in Roundhay, Leeds, has spoken in the run-up to International Women’s Day on March 8.
“What I love most about my work is making life easier for people by giving them some independence and taking away daily frustrations for those who have limitations,” she said.
“The best part of my work is when patients come back to see me after surgery and rehabilitation and I can see the results. I’m passionate about this work, it really helps.”
Born in Manchester, she was interested in medicine from an early age: “Medicine seemed like a good combination of arts and sciences. My sister, Mary Hernon, had also studied medicine and hearing about her experiences inspired me. “Then as a medical student I did a project on breast reconstruction with a female plastic surgeon in Manchester, Ann Brain. Seeing how plastic surgery could restore physical form and self-esteem, I decided to become a plastic surgeon.”
After studying at St Andrews University in Scotland she completed her specialist training in Yorkshire, before gaining further experience in the UK, Taiwan and Sweden
She has been a consultant surgeon since 2010 and was a member of the teams who carried out the UK’s first hand transplant operation in 2012, and first double hand transplant in 2016.
Her work in the surgical reconstruction of tendons, muscles and nerves is challenging but can make a huge impact.
“We are achieving good results that are changing daily life for many patients,” she said. “If you notice muscles tightening, spasms or stiff limbs at any time after you’ve had a stroke or brain injury you should tell your doctor straight away.
“The loss of movement can happen after the body’s nervous system has been damaged, usually after a stroke, disease or injury, or in children born with cerebral palsy. It can be painful and have a huge impact on your daily life affecting the way you move your arms and making it difficult to control movement.
“The surgery focuses on rebalancing the disordered function of these muscles by redirecting the tense muscles and tendons to power the weaker muscles and tendons. The tense muscles can be lengthened and also the nerve supply to these muscles can be reduced to relax them. This rebalancing can improve the function of the affected limbs.”
* Leeds is one of only a few units in the country to offer a new type of surgery for tetraplegia, a paralysis affecting all four limbs.
Catherine Hernon was one of the first medics nationwide to be trained in the technique. She said: “There’s a gap in service in this country. We are quite far behind countries such as Scandinavia and the States.” Another innovation is a new video evaluation tool to assess upper limb function in children with cerebral palsy, which helps doctors decide what treatment would be suitable.