Fresh from a late night session in his operating theatre, Noel Fitzpatrick takes a moment to chat to Rebekah Rennick at the inaugural UCD Alumni Award Ceremony to discuss the irrepressible link between Art and Medicine, his revolutionary work thus far and life as ‘The Bionic Vet’
Unconditional love is a powerful tool. It is something that binds us to those whom we consider precious, be it a life long partner or the four legged feline that curls up at your feet each night. It’s an intoxicating medicine that blinds us whenever that being may become injured or in danger, allowing us to disregard any other option than the best possible care. For leading neuro-orthopaedic veterinary surgeon, Noel Fitzpatrick, unconditional love for our animal counterparts has become the driving force to his vocation as a last chance saloon proprietor for animals “that nobody wants to fix and that nobody else feels they can fix.”
Meeting Fitzpatrick at the 2014 UCD Alumni Award Ceremony where he was to be commemorated in recognition of his revolutionary work and outstanding contribution to small animals; compassion, enthusiasm and wonder at his chosen career path radiate from his demeanour. Amongst the other recipients, Fitzpatrick is a bouncing ball of energy, intrigued to talk and even more intrigued to listen, something that has strengthened his ability to compassionately and revolutionarily develop the Veterinary Medicine faculty through pioneering surgery techniques.
Originating from Ballyfin, Co. Laois and growing up on a farm in Mountmellick, his early years, like many aspiring veterinary students, were spent tending and delivering lambs. While an early lambing incident ultimately ended in the loss of a new born thus triggering his incentive to follow a career in Veterinary Medicine, Fitzpatrick admits he struggled just as much as any student to figure out where he wanted to take his chosen vocation; “I was very confused in vet school. Like, I genuinely didn’t know because my Dad, and he’s not here tonight and it’s a great sadness to me, he had no idea what was inside me. He wanted me to be a cow and sheep Vet and he was very disappointed, well I think he was somewhat disappointed when I transgressed from the ways of farming.”
his concept of ‘One Medicine’, the outstanding fusion of ideas and technologies in order to advance not only Veterinary Medicine but Human Medicine too
To say Fitzpatrick has transgressed from the usual large animal vet direction would be an understatement. Instead of a farm environment and disease eradication responsibilities that lie at the heart of large animal Veterinary Medicine, Fitzpatrick left UCD Belfield in 1990 to begin his journey in transforming and evolving orthopaedic surgery for small animals and pioneering his concept of ‘One Medicine’, the outstanding fusion of ideas and technologies in order to advance not only Veterinary Medicine but Human Medicine too. “When I finished, I didn’t really know that specialisation was really possible to be honest with you.” he says “I was obsessed with the ability to change lives in moments in Veterinary Medicine that you couldn’t do in Human Medicine because of restrictions. I could change a life in a moment and I was obsessed with that, and then I was obsessed with our moral responsibility for that moment. And that very much for me is still the driving force and, in fact, even coming here tonight, the cab driver turned around and said “Thank you very much for making the TV show”, that’s the guy I’m doing it for, not the millions of people who either take it for granted or alternatively some vets who are very cynical about it.”
From performing his first amateur orthopaedic surgery on a kitchen table in West Cork as a young graduate, he then went on in 1993 to study for extra qualifications in radiology and orthopaedics. His tenacity for life and hunger for providing care for animals in dire need meant that Fitzpatrick was never going to fade into the background of Veterinary Medicine. Consequentially, 2009 saw Fitzpatrick and a black cat named Oscar become unlikely partners that have since advanced together and bookmarked the beginning of a new chapter in animal prosthesis.
Following an accident with a combine harvester that left him without his two hind-feet, Oscar, a cat from Jersey, was flown to Fitzpatrick who had engineered a pair of new bionic feet for his feline friend. With Oscar, Fitzpatrick worked closely alongside an engineer to develop an intraosseous transcutaneous amputation prosthesis and a pair of unique plastic feet that would enable Oscar to walk once more. This prosthesis allows skin to adhere to metal but what Fitzpatrick had to ensure was that the metal used would withstand everyday stresses without breaking – and it did, coining Fitzpatrick with the name ‘The Bionic Vet’ from there on in.
I think the ‘theatre’ isn’t called that just by coincidence. You go in to create, it’s theatre
However, his individuality does not yield in his work ethic but expands to his overall outlook as to what Veterinary Medicine truly means. Following qualification, Fitzpatrick delved into the world of drama and admits his other passion for life lies in literature. While his dip in the dramatic world of the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art saw him nab a role on Casualty, Heartbeat and The Bill alike, his definition of the word ‘theatre’ elicits a labyrinth of meaning; acting as a key to understanding the way in which his mind truly works, “I felt that there was room in Veterinary Medicine for Art. I think the ‘theatre’ isn’t called that just by coincidence. You go in to create, it’s theatre! You go in to create a marriage with biology and science, and for me, science is way too rigid so, tonight they talk about pioneering this, and pioneering that but for me it’s really just frustration and it’s artistically trying to look for a solution to that.”
“And I don’t think, whatever the creator of this universe was, if you believe in God or not,” he continues “I don’t think it was science, I think it was an artistic evolution of esoteric salt and I think us scientists try to rationalise it and I try now to spend the next twenty years, I hope, inspiring your generation that it doesn’t need to be; you need to follow the rules, but it doesn’t need to be this intransigent notebook. You need to have that fire in your belly.”
Fitzpatrick boils over with warmth and honest integrity, traits that have seen him become the poster surgeon and inspiration for many veterinary students and pet owners alike. His world revolves around his work. Obsessional and a perfectionist at heart, he astounds his patients, their owners and those watching at home on his Channel 4 TV show ‘Supervet’ with the lengths and breadths he will go to help those who walk through the doors of Fitzpatrick Referrals; his state-of-the-art small animal referral clinic located in Eashing, Surrey. However, even after so much success Fitzpatrick keeps his feet firmly on his surgery floor, explaining the clarity with which he views his work “I see Vets as the gatekeepers of lots of things in society; they’re the gatekeepers of the food chain, they’re the gatekeepers of disease epidemiology, all disease, they’re the gatekeepers of the implants in drugs, they’re the gatekeepers of unconditional love most importantly and they’re the gatekeepers of life and death. What other profession does those five things? Seriously.”
People think because I make a TV show and because I run a big surgical practice, that all I do is surgery; that’s not true. Mostly I hold people’s hands.
Yet, while he continues to breath fresh life into cases that have prematurely been deemed stale and irretrievable, he cannot emphasise enough that the heart of what he does lies in one simple action “People think because I make a TV show and because I run a big surgical practice, that all I do is surgery; that’s not true. Mostly I hold people’s hands.”
“The whole team, there’s 137 people there now, their job is mostly just to hold people’s hands because we look after companion animals, so we are actually holding the hands of love, hope and redemption everyday and I know that sounds really evangelical but the only reason I’m here tonight is to carry that and to say to people this is important in a world that is sometimes divorced from what is important”
With a business brimming with a plethora of incredible resources; from MRI, CT, X-ray and diagnostic rooms, world class operating theatres, and a rehabilitation centre that boasts optimum environments for recovery, including a hydrotherapy pool and facilities for both acupuncture and shockwave therapy, it’s no wonder Fitzpatrick has jokily referred to his clinic as the “Fitz Ritz”. However, The University Observer had to wonder what on earth goes through his mind when faced with the huge number of difficult cases he sees on a daily basis?
“The first question I ask myself is “Does this person want it for themselves or for the dog or the cat?”. He tells “I used not to think that; I used to think that everybody was perfectly sane and that everybody was perfectly reasonable and that everything was going to be okay as long as we did scientifically the right thing. That is absolutely untrue, it’s not going to be okay. I have a lady at the moment who really upset me yesterday because I put her dog to sleep and she’s going crazy because she’s accusing me of not saving it and that I should have done more but it wasn’t morally right.”
“So here’s the thing, when I was coming through Vet Medicine it was all about what is possible and what is not possible. Now that’s no longer the case because everything is possible. Literally, almost everything is possible now. So the line in the sand now is what is morally right. “Is it morally right to intervene in this way with that dog or cat, for that family, with those financial circumstances in that moment in time?” And that’s the first thought that goes through my head and usually within the first five minutes, I’ve sussed out is this right for the animals, and if it is I’ll have a meaningful conversation about all the solutions and if it isn’t I’ll have a meaningful conversation about all the solutions and I’ll advise them to go down the route of something that is kinder for the animal other then surgery.”
It’s difficult not to be enthralled by Fitzpatrick’s enthusiasm, let alone the ability he has to allow animals, from new born to senior citizen, to live their life with the same respect and dignity we would give a human being. Although some may question his sanity and health “I stayed up until half four last night to get all the operations for today done and my nurses are very upset with me”. He credits his will to keep going and progressing by continuing to remind himself of the importance of perspective. This is in addition to surrounding himself with the helping hands of those who understand his tenacious willpower “they [his team of nurses] get it, they understand that we’re here for a bigger purpose.”
From confused student to confident surgeon, Noel Fitzpatrick continues to defy and push the boundaries of Veterinary Medicine, attempting to unionize the worlds of human and animal neuro-orthopaedic surgery. While he admits that he “could never have been a medic because [he’s] not intelligent enough!” it’s undeniable that the work and advice he’s giving our four legged chums could transpire and transform the prosthetic world of those on two feet.