Career in profile: leading surgeon on establishing neurology service

Written by: Katia Marioni-Henry
Published on: 3 Apr 2023

Marioni-HenryWhen vet Katia Marioni-Henry treated the paralysis of a French bulldog at the Vets Now Hospital in Glasgow, it was a welcome step into the past.

For more than two decades, she has been a leader in the field of veterinary neurology/neurosurgery.

She has employed her expertise extensively throughout both North America and the UK, helped train the next generation of vets in both countries, and been at the forefront of vital research.

Now, nine years after setting up and growing a neurology/neurosurgery service at The University of Edinburgh, Dr Marioni-Henry (pictued inset) has returned to her first love.

She has joined the team at Vets Now (pictured below) to establish a new neurology/neurosurgery service at the Vets Now Hospital, with Claude the French bulldog her first patient.

And being back making a front-line, and potentially life-saving, difference to animals and owners brings both excitement and joy.

Dr Marioni-Henry said: “I’m so happy to be here and really looking forward to what we can offer.

“I’d lost that involvement and connection with clients and pets, and I missed it badly. I was only teaching surgery to other vets seeking to specialise in this field, not doing it. It’s great to be back to my first love.”

Having grown up in Parma, Italy, veterinary studies at the city’s university beckoned, although it was not always a pre-determined career path.

Developing interests

Dr Marioni-Henry said: “Although being a vet was my childhood dream, I studied ancient Greek, Latin, philosophy and history with a view to doing art.

“I loved animals, but I wasn’t sure I’d enjoy being with pets so much if it was a job. I did come back, though, and I graduated in 1995.

“I was interested in neurology during my vet school studies, but it really developed after I left.”

Dr Marioni-Henry went on to do a PhD in clinical electrodiagnostics at the University of Turin and Scott-Ritchey Research Center in Auburn, Alabama.

A return to the US beckoned for a rotating internship in small animal medicine and surgery at Auburn University, and a residency in neurology at the University of Pennsylvania. She became a diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine, with a sub-speciality in neurology.

After a period as a clinical instructor at the University of Missouri, she became an assistant professor of neurology and neurosurgery at the University of Tennessee.

Dr Marioni-Henry said: “When I was in Italy soon after graduating, I’d be seeing dogs that had slipped discs, but were otherwise perfectly healthy.

“In humans, a slipped disc usually results in pain and weakness caused by a compression of a nerve root, but they can cope. With dogs and cats, it can press on the spinal cord causing paralysis, meaning they may need to be euthanised.

“As a neurosurgeon, in the majority of cases you can remove the disc, letting the dog walk again and go on to live a normal life.

“I’ve seen treatments advance so much and the number of neurologists increase hugely. I think when I became an American specialist there were only about 120 of us right across the United States; now, there are more than 400.”

Missing academia

Dr Marioni-Henry had her daughter while in the US, and with her parents rarely seeing their granddaughter, she made the move to the UK to at least be closer at hand.

She worked as a consultant in neurology and neurosurgery for a number of large referral practices.

Dr Marioni-Henry said: “In some practices, I was bringing a specialism they didn’t have before.

“I treated dogs and cats with epilepsy and seizure-like episodes, balance problems, tumours and strokes.

“But I missed academia and I wanted to have a chance to go back to do research, and also teach the students again.”

Having made the move to The University of Edinburgh in 2013, she started the neurology/neurosurgery service at the Hospital for Small Animals.

She continued: “The first few years were hard because I was the only neurologist and creating a service from scratch was tough.

“In private practice, you can explain what you want to do and hopefully get things moving quickly. In academia, it could take months or years, but I built up to a nine-strong team that was seeing 1,200 cases a year.”

During her time in academia, Dr Marioni-Henry honed her teaching skills. She become a senior fellow of the Academy of Higher Education, published various scientific articles and was active in the campus’ equality, diversity and inclusion committee.

Dr Marioni-Henry said: “It put a strain on family life, though, and latterly, I just wasn’t happy. I needed a fresh start, a new challenge and I wanted somewhere I could almost begin again and build up a service from scratch.”

Fresh start

The state-of-art Vets Now Hospital in the heart of Glasgow was just the place to start all over again.

With her daughter still at school in the Scottish capital, she started commuting to Glasgow a few weeks before the time of writing and has been hard at work establishing the new service.

Dr Marioni-Henry said: “I knew about the support network here, and that this was somewhere I could enjoy working with colleagues with great expertise in emergency and critical care, anaesthesia, surgery, oncology and medicine.

“I felt I could learn from them, as well as them learning from me, and there is such a great nursing team. I’ve already noticed that people are happy to be here, and having a good and inclusive working environment that supports staff and their families is very important.

“Vets Now has a real emphasis on teaching, with rotating and specialist interns and residents, so I could keep up my love of teaching.”

She added: “We already have big plans for new equipment and expansion, but there is much we can already offer.

“With our CT scanner, for example, we can diagnose slipped discs quickly – especially in small breeds – and treat them surgically. And use it for brain scans if there is trauma or if we suspect a tumour, or severe inflammation in the brain.

“We can do a lumbar tap to rule out inflammation of the central nervous system, either on an infectious or immune-mediated basis.”

Full launch

After putting in all the behind-the-scenes work, Dr Marioni-Henry was finally able to see the service launch properly at the start of November.

The French bulldog was the first patient, and the difference the neurology and neurosurgery service can make was immediately obvious.

Dr Marioni-Henry, who has published articles on neurological conditions affecting cats and likes the challenge of examining them without causing distress, added: “Within four days of our surgery, he was back on his feet and walking.

“You have such a great feeling when you see that. It’s giving the animal a life they wouldn’t otherwise have.”

Pet ownership has led to greater and greater demand for specialist veterinary services, and the new service at the Glasgow Vets Now Hospital will provide much-needed options, both for emergency and critical care, and referrals.

Dr Marioni-Henry said: “This is absolutely the best place to be brought in an emergency, but in some cases, we’d have to refer elsewhere for conditions affecting the brain, peripheral nerves or the spine.

“Now, some of these debilitating neurological conditions can be diagnosed and treated rapidly here without having to transport the animal.

“I’m excited at seeing the work we do and the team we have grow over the next year.”