Tough lessons in life and death as a farmer’s son made Noel Fitzpatrick determined to help animals - and led to him becoming ‘The Supervet’. Laura Drysdale reports.
It was a precious bond with his beloved sheepdog Pirate as a child that helped shaped Professor Noel Fitzpatrick’s journey to becoming ‘The Supervet’ many have come to know and love.
As he sought solace in his four-legged friend from bullies at school, he fantasised of a world where animals were relieved of all suffering.
“Pirate was my pal and I would go sit with him in the cattle shed where he was living,” Noel explains over the phone. “And I would tell him stories about ‘Vet man’ who I had invented, who would fly through the skies and take all the animals out of pain.”
Today, Noel has, in essence, grown into his imaginary childhood character, who he says would take the strays of animals and use items people had thrown away “and make them bionic”.
Recognised as a world-class orthopaedic neuro-veterinary surgeon, Noel has devised more than 20 pioneering procedures and implant systems including techniques to correct growth deformities and salvage limbs using prosthetics.
In 2010, the BBC commissioned a six-episode run of a series they called Bionic Vet, showing some of the science behind his work, and Noel, with the team at his vet practice Fitzpatrick Referrals, is also the focus of Channel 4’s The Supervet, which is now in its 12th series.
“‘Vet man’ was The Bionic Vet that ultimately became The Supervet,” he says. “Through Pirate’s eyes was really where I first saw that journey, and that journey has led to a 50-year-old Noel Fitzpatrick doing a Welcome to My World arena tour in a very large way.”
Noel’s life story from then to now will be told in his autobiographical live stage show tour, which arrives in Yorkshire later this week.
“We’re going to go through that journey and we’re going to explain to people how dreams really can come true if you are prepared to put in a bit of work and believe enough.”
The son of a farmer, Noel grew up in Ballyfin, a small village in County Laois, Ireland and it was his experiences of life on the farm from which his desire to help animals was built.
“I was lambing sheep at age five because my hand was really small, and that’s the truth,” he says. “So I, at a very, very early age, was witnessing life and death on the farm and a lot of the early part of the show is about that journey of feeling a bit useless.”
One memory in particular, of a cold night shift in a frosty field, stands out. It was a night that saw Noel lose two lambs.
“That shaped my career because I didn’t want to lose animals. I didn’t want pain and suffering in the world. I wanted to make a real difference. So the farm and the rural environment that I’m sure the people of Yorkshire will relate to very much shaped me as a human being.”
The first date of his tour will take Noel to Hull on September 27. It’s a city he has not previously visited, though the vet is not new to Yorkshire. He first experienced the county in his acting days as he filmed for episodes of ITV’s long-running show Heartbeat.
Like many others, he also took inspiration from county vet James Herriot, whose rural practice Skeldale House was based in the North Yorkshire town of Thirsk.
“I think it’s just really lovely to be able to give back to the part of the world he came from,” Noel says.
“Because he inspired so many people, I’d like to go to Hull and Sheffield and Leeds and inspire as many people as possible in return.”
Having obtained his Bachelor in Veterinary Medicine from University College Dublin in 1990, Noel went on to complete Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons certificates in small animal orthopaedics and radiology.
In 2005, he opened Fitzpatrick Referrals in Surrey, with the vision of creating an environment marrying compassionate care with excellence in veterinary medicine.
When The Supervet began, Noel says he wanted to tell a story about love, hope and science, recognising the bond humans have with animals and how much families will do for their pets in return for the unconditional love they give.
“I’ve always said this and I firmly believe it, that people don’t care what you know until they know that you care,” he says.
“And the other thing I often say is that hugging is half of healing.
“And this comes from a surgeon who will spend seven hours in theatre trying to put bits and pieces of Meccano back together again to save a limb or a spine.
“I think compassion is at the core of everything, and in a world ever more divorced from things that are really important in society - love, hope, compassion - and in a world where those things are really needed, the one place that we can always expect that is in our love of an animal who is a family member.”
As well as having several awards to his name and delivering more than 600 lectures both in the UK and around the globe, Noel is also the holder of a Guinness World Record.
Presented in 2015, it recognises his pioneering operation six year earlier on Oscar the cat, the world’s first animal to receive two bionic leg implants. Whilst a humbled Noel was rightly thrilled with the honour, importantly it brought to global attention the very fact the procedure was even possible.
“When Oscar went on newspapers around the world, one picture tells a thousand words, and suddenly if a cat can run on two bionic legs, why can’t a human?
“If you fast forward, we still don’t have a human in the Paralympics or in the Invictus Games running on bionic limbs that are attached to their skeleton.
“But in my life, I hope to make that happen.”
Through The Humanimal Trust charity, which Noel founded, he is an advocate for collaboration between vets, human doctors, bioengineers and scientists for the benefit of all living creatures.
He sees a “new and bright future” allowing animal and human medicine to move forward together.
In his tour, through a virtual theatre that he describes as a ‘bionic bunker’, he hopes to give insight into veterinary techniques, showing people how he thinks and where inventions are going in the future “as if I was sitting with you in a pub in Yorkshire”.
“I want to address questions like ‘Noel how do you invent such and such’ and ‘how does that translate in real life’ and then importantly ‘how does it relate to human medicine and where we are going into the future?’
“There won’t be a single person in any of those arenas in Hull, Sheffield or Leeds that doesn’t care about a child or their granny or their mum or their dog or their cat, and actually medicine is applicable to everybody.
“And it’s really important I think that people understand that it isn’t just a show for people who love animals, it’s a show for people who love life and who believe in the future of medicine.”
Tour to travel through Yorkshire
Professor Noel Fitzpatrick’s Welcome to My World UK and Ireland tour will take him to three venues in Yorkshire.
The tour will kick off on Thursday, September 27 at Hull Bonus Arena.
On Saturday, October 13 Noel will be at Sheffield Fly DSA Arena and on Friday, October 19 at Leeds’s First Direct Arena.
His new autobiographical book Listening to the Animals: Becoming the Supervet will be published on October 18.
Series 12 of The Supervet started on Channel 4 on September 12, following the treatment journeys of animals and their families at Fitzpatrick Referrals’ Orthopaedics and Neurology practice in Eashing and Oncology and Soft Tissue hospital in Guildford.