Noel Fitzpatrick, a pioneer in the field of developing bionic limbs for animals, spoke to Alison Lee about his incredible contributions to the world of veterinary medicine
What do Oscar the cat, Roly the bulldog and Mitzy the German shepherd have in common? They (and many others) have been saved from almost certain euthanasia by UCD veterinary graduate Noel Fitzpatrick, dubbed the ‘Bionic Vet’ by the BBC. Oscar had his two back feet severed by a combine harvester, but Fitzpatrick used pioneering neuro-orthopoedic technologies to make him a new pair of lower limbs. Roly’s hind leg was eaten away by cancer, but Fitzpatrick implanted a new hip and femur into this limb, allowing him to walk normally in just nine weeks. Mitzy had her foot trampled by a horse – but the bionic vet had the answer, implanting a titanium prosthesis below her ankle joint which allows her to enjoy life like a normal dog.
Fitzpatrick shared these stories and many others with current UCD vet students in a two-hour talk on Thursday, October 13th. He also shared the secret to his success: his willingness to embrace new technologies pioneered by human doctors and his ability to modify them to the needs to veterinary patients. In Roly’s case, he collaborated with human surgeon Gordon Blunn of University College London’s Institute of Orthopaedics and Musculoskeletal Science to create a prosthetic, which so accurately mimicked Roly’s real leg that the muscles and tendons reattached and grew into the metal. Another technology Fitzpatrick has utilised is the ‘ITAP’ (Intraosseous Transcutaneous Amputation Prosthetic). These metal implants were drilled into Oscar the cat’s delicate ankle bones; no mean feat in itself. Their success is based on their coating of hydroxyapatite, a substance that encourages the skin and tissue to grow around the implant, forming an infection-resistant seal.
After his hilariously irreverent but inspirational presentation Fitzpatrick spared a moment to share some thoughts with the University Observer. On being asked why he chose to be a vet, he replied “I got offered Veterinary Medicine and Medicine on the same day, and I was feeding silage to cattle that particular day… I looked at the cows and I though ‘I can’t be bothered with people’s little problems … I just thought I’d have a nicer time with animals.’”
Some people may not describe Fitzpatrick’s hectic life as “nice” – he had been in surgery until 3am the night preceding his talk – but it would be hard to find a person more passionate about his vocation. “I’m extremely lucky because not only do I get to do what I love every day, but also I get to do all kinds of different surgeries every day, which I wouldn’t be able to do if I was a human doctor,” he explains.
By now some readers may be feeling somewhat sceptical; why bother doing complex surgeries on animals when there are humans out there who don’t have access to medical treatment? Why put ignorant creatures though pain and suffering when their limbs could be amputated, or they could be put to sleep? Is it ethical to charge people so much money to fix their pets? Fitzpatrick faces these criticisms on a daily basis, but his devotion to animal welfare is obvious and he will never do surgery the sake of it; one of the core values of his practise is “we will never advise intervention because it is possible, but only where it is warranted and justified”. However, during his talk he explained that many commonly performed veterinary orthopaedic procedures don’t have a good outcome, and not all animals cope well with amputation. Therefore it makes sense that new techniques be developed and trialled – what is lacking is people who “think outside the box” and who are brave enough to actually implement essential changes in practise. If people are willing to spend money on their pet’s health and wellbeing, why shouldn’t they? Fitzpatrick states; “You don’t have the right to tell someone what to do for their dog and cat. It’s their choice. My job is to give them all the options, lay it out for them and let them make up their own minds.”
Fitzpatrick doesn’t just borrow techniques from human medicine – he believes that the work vets do can benefit mankind, and he’s right; to give just one example, ITAP technology, first used successfully in animals, has since been used to develop a prosthetic arm for a woman injured in the 2005 London bombings. This crossover between companion animal and human medicine could prove invaluable, as the lab animals traditionally used to research human medicine may not be good “models” for many human diseases.
Some might find Fitzpatrick’s ideas a little eccentric, but are they really? After all, his work has been documented by the BBC in a six-part series, and his state-of-the-art practise in Surrey boasts MRI and CT scanners, and over ninety employees. He is an associate professor in the University of Florida, and his surgical breakthroughs have been published in scientific journals. Maybe attitudes towards animals and veterinary medicine are changing – but often change can be for the better.