Professor Noel Fitzpatrick
Noel Fitzpatrick has a dream.
‘I don’t want to sound Messianic,’ the man dubbed ‘the bionic vet’ tells Weekend, ‘but I know I have a purpose on this Earth. And I’m committed to it.’
By trade, Professor Fitzpatrick is a neuro-orthopaedic veterinary surgeon, whose cutting-edge methods have seen him fashioning everything from prosthetic limbs for cats to canine endoskeletons. But animal welfare is only part of the prof’s plan: ultimately, his goal is nothing less than teaching the world the value of unconditional love.
‘People don’t see what I see,’ says the 47-year-old Irishman, shortly before scrubbing for theatre at Fitzpatrick Referrals, his multi-million pound, state-of-the-art veterinary hospital in Surrey. ‘They don’t see the people crying in my arms that I have every day. This morning, I had a lady literally bawling her eyes out. Do you really think that’s all about her dog? It’s not, it’s about her life.’
Bottle some of that unconditional love, reasons Fitzpatrick, and maybe people will stop killing each other. ‘If we move forward together, humans and animals, and if we take a moral responsibility for our planet and stop fighting, maybe we will survive,’ he says. You certainly can’t fault his ambition.
The Supervet – the popular Channel 4 documentary following the work of Fitzpatrick and his 180-strong team, which has just returned for a fifth series – is his opportunity to spread the word. True to his mantra that “anything is possible”, the show follows the professor’s pioneering work, pushing impatiently at the boundaries of medicine, science and technology like a veterinary Tony Stark.
He likes the comparison (‘I love Iron Man!’), and is the first to accept his groundbreaking, often improvised on-the-hoof fixes can be unorthodox. ‘You have to know what’s in the books to do the right thing,’ he says. ‘But when you go into theatre, if you’re limited by thinking in straight lines, you’ll never find the solutions. I don’t think in straight lines.’
In the first episode of the new series – due to be broadcast a few hours after his chat with Weekend – we saw Fitzpatrick agree to a free consultation for a man living in a homeless shelter, whose dog had cancer. It’s a noble gesture, but one which raises a bit of a problem.
‘I guarantee that by 9 o’clock tonight I’ll get a thousand requests to treat people’s animals for free,’ he sighs. ‘And I have no money. If I give all my time for free, Lloyd’s Bank will close me down, because I owe them several million pounds.
‘You don’t go to the bank and say, “Can I borrow the money for a million pound MRI scanner?” without some kind of business plan. So when Mary comes in and complains because you say an MRI scan will be £1,000 plus VAT… well, you can’t win.
‘I don’t care about money,’ he adds. ‘For me, it’s all about having a purpose. I don’t want to be the wealthiest man in the graveyard.’
Fitzpatrick is a self-confessed workaholic, who literally sleeps on the job (he has a bedroom next to his office). Last night, he finished surgery at 2.30am, then watched the news while hanging upside down in his gym. ‘I live at work,’ he says, ‘and Keira lives with me.’ Keira – named in honour of a certain Ms Knightley – is his pet border terrier.
In The Supervet, Fitzpatrick describes emergency surgery as ‘the lifeblood of what I do’. Is there, wonders Weekend, part of him that enjoys that adrenaline rush, even as life and death hangs in the balance?
‘Any surgeon who says he is devoid of ego is either lying to you or lying to himself,’ he says. ‘Theatre is not called theatre by coincidence. Anyone who tries to achieve greatness is an egotist. It depends how you channel your ego, and I try to channel mine into making the world a better place.’
Fitzpatrick can trace both his love of animals and his frequent despair at humanity back to his childhood on the family’s cattle and sheep farm in Ballyfin, County Laois. ‘I was an isolated child,’ he admits. ‘I was bullied at school, had a terrible time. I abhor bullying: the reason people bully other people, including in war, is that they never look in the mirror.’
His only real friend was a collie dog called Shep. ‘For me, the dog was the only creature in the world I could relate to when I felt like an alien. Because human beings judge you.’
Despite starting secondary school unable to read or write, he went on to study veterinary medicine at University College Dublin, before collecting a scrabble board of letters after his name at institutions from Pennsylvania to Ghent. He describes his life’s work as ‘moving animal and human medicine forward together’, an ambition enshrined in The Humaninal Trust, of which he is the founder.
Given this singular, evangelical zeal, it’s surprising to learn that Fitzpatrick is also a professionally trained actor: he’s appeared in the likes of Casualty and London’s Burning, and played both a sheep-rustler and a vet in Heartbeat (nearly losing out on the latter because a casting director ‘didn’t think I looked like a vet’).
But even this, it transpires, was all part of a long game to allow him to communicate his ideas to the world. Shortly after moving to London, Fitzpatrick met the Hollywood film actor Philip Gilbert – ‘a God-sent soul’ who helped him understand his purpose on the Earth.
‘Philip said, “Noel, it isn’t for you understand the reason, but it is for you to find a reason big enough”. And at that moment I knew my reason was to find a way to translate to the world, through medicine and media, the beauty of existence.’
It paid off. Fitzpatrick now has a platform and an audience – and he’s determined to make it count.
‘I didn’t want to do yet another television show about a vet doing fluffy-feely things,’ he says. ‘When I talk to the camera, I want to tell you how I see the world. I want to rip the heart out of your chest, give you a little bit of light, and put it back in again.
‘I hope, wish and pray that somebody out there who is lonely, sad, desolate or whose brain has been corrupted by badness will watch the programme and say to themselves, “Today, I’m going to do one good thing,” – something that will allow them to look back at themselves in the mirror.’
And then he’s gone: off to save more animals, and maybe a few souls as well.
The Supervet is on Channel 4, Wednesdays at 8pm. Catch up on previous episodes at channel4.com
Published in Waitrose Weekend, December 10, 2015
(c) Waitrose Weekend