Intended for healthcare professionals


Supporting and caring for families: the consultant neonatologist

BMJ 2024; 385 doi: (Published 20 May 2024) Cite this as: BMJ 2024;385:q1078
  1. Kathy Oxtoby
  1. The BMJ

Consultant neonatologist Cath Harrison talks to Kathy Oxtoby about the privilege of caring for babies and supporting their families

Cath Harrison helps families make memories. “It’s my job to make the time that families spend with their babies very special—no matter how short it is. I feel privileged to do this for them,” she says.

As part of her work as a consultant neonatologist at Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust, Harrison also supports families who have lost their babies. “Helping them through this is a humbling experience,” she says. Then there are babies born prematurely or with complex conditions who, with support and care from Harrison and the neonatal team, are eventually able to go home. “And some time later, when those babies come back to our clinic and their personalities have developed, it’s such a joy,” she says.

Neonatology is an amazing specialty because it involves such a breadth and depth of medicine, Harrison says. She also enjoys the multidisciplinary approach that characterises the specialty. “We couldn’t do our jobs without each other,” she says.

Harrison knew at a young age that she wanted to work with people and in medicine, and her voluntary work with children during summer holidays sparked an interest in paediatrics. While studying at the University of Nottingham Medical School she did a six week paediatric placement in Port of Spain, Trinidad, which strengthened her decision to choose that specialty.

During a paediatric rotation at Sheffield Children’s Hospital she met some inspirational clinicians who further reinforced her choice, including her educational supervisor, paediatric oncologist Helena Davies. And consultant neonatologist and mentor Alan Gibson gave her opportunities to write peer reviews, to co-write a book, and to speak at international conferences, she says.

While training, Harrison travelled the world, honing her clinical skills. In 1994 she spent a year in Sydney doing paediatric emergency medicine and paediatric surgery. In 1997 she went to South Africa for two years, working in paediatrics at a rural hospital in northern KwaZulu-Natal with minimal access to medical equipment. “I learnt how essential care is the basis of all medicine,” she says.

After a research post in Melbourne in 2002, where she looked at inflammatory lung markers in babies under the guidance of her academic supervisor Chad Andersen, Harrison completed her training. In 2004 she took up her current post in Leeds.

She divides her time between her neonatal work and her role as clinical lead for Embrace transport service—the UK’s first combined infants and children’s transport service, which covers Yorkshire and the Humber—which she helped establish in 2009. “I work with a fantastic team of doctors, nurses, practitioners, and drivers, moving sick babies and children to intensive care units around our region,” she says.

She is also chair of the Neonatal Transport Group. “This national role allows me to improve the quality and standard of transport we provide for our patients—such as through developing service specifications alongside NHS England,” she says.

Harrison was awarded educational supervisor of the year for Yorkshire in 2020 by the Yorkshire School of Paediatrics, and has been involved with neonatal training for the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health since 2008.

She believes it is important to be available and approachable to trainees, and to encourage them to come up with their own solutions. She also encourages trainees to be opportunistic and make the most of what comes their way. “I was lucky that people showed me those opportunities and I want to do the same for others,” she says.

At least once a year she travels internationally to teach neonatology and, looking ahead, hopes to combine her current work with her interest in health in low and middle income countries.

Outside work she plays tennis, cycles, and has just taken up crown green bowling “as a calmer sport.” And family and friendship, she says, “are very important to me.”

“We are all continually learning,” she says, “and we should never, any of us, be too proud to ask for help.” She will continue to make the most of new experiences that come her way, and hopes others will do the same. “There are lots of opportunities out there—we just have to seize them.”

Nominated by Aoife Hurley

“I’ve been fortunate to have Dr Cath Harrison as my educational supervisor for the past six years and to have worked with her throughout my training. Cath is one of the best clinicians I have ever worked with—always keen to teach and do learning assessments with trainees.

“Her management of patients is incredible—you always want her on shift if a really sick baby is there. As well as practical skills and management advice, Cath knows the importance of progressing the neonatal and transport field.

“Cath guides you with both ‘shop floor’ advice and career advice. I have been so supported by her—despite being incredibly busy with her numerous roles and a family of her own. I have been able to achieve my goals and am soon to be a neonatal consultant myself. I am not the only person with a story of such support, I know she has done the same for any and all who ask for her help.”

  • Aoife Hurley is a neonatal specialty trainee year 8 and a neonatal Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health specialty advisory committees trainee representative.