The woman changing the lives of people paralysed by stroke

As millions celebrate International Women's Day today, we talk to one woman who is helping to restore movement to paralysed limbs.

Catherine Hernon, consultant plastic and reconstructive surgeon at Spire Leeds Hospital carries out pioneering surgery on paralysed upper limbs caused by a stroke, brain or nerve injury.

Catherine was also involved in the UK’s first hand transplant operation in 2012, and first double hand transplant in 2016, as a member of the specialist surgical team led by Professor Simon Kay.

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Catherine has a special interest in upper limb spasticity and surgical reconstruction of tendons, muscles and nerves, helping to restore movement to arms and hands in both adults and children.

It’s challenging work, especially when dealing with the unpredictability of brain damage.

“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.

Catherine’s work also involves tetraplegia – a paralysis affecting all four limbs that can involve partial or total loss of use. Surgery involves using nerve and tendon transfers and joint stablising. Catherine was the first person in the UK to attend a tetraplegia course in 2011.

“It’s advanced surgery and very few units in the UK offer this service. There’s a gap in service in this country. We are quite far behind countries such as Scandinavia and the States.”

Born in Manchester, Catherine developed an interest in medicine from an early age and was inspired by two strong female role models. “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 that.”

After studying at St Andrews University in Scotland she completed her specialist training in plastic and reconstructive surgery in Yorkshire. She then gained further experience in hand surgery by undertaking hand fellowship posts in Leeds and the St Andrews centre for plastic surgery and burns in Chelmsford.

Prior to starting her consultant post at Leeds Spire Hospital in Roundhay, she spent a sabbatical in Norrland’s University Hospital in Umea, Sweden furthering her experience in the surgical treatment of upper limb spasticity.

When she is not working, Catherine, who lives in north Leeds, enjoys playing golf, cycling, charity fundraising bike rides and yoga.

“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. The best part of my work is when patients come back to see me after surgery and rehabilitation and I can see the results.”