Professor Noel Fitzpatrick is rather a phenomenon. Who would have thought that in this day and age of celebrity that a veterinary surgeon would be regarded as such? What he has done is to captivate our hearts? He cares for very sick animals but has become well-known as TV’s Supervet. Sally Thomson managed to talk to him, between him performing some life-saving operations, to discuss his exceptional work.
You’re known for the extraordinary lengths you go to saving poorly animals – what is it that drives you to keep challenging the odds?
Early in my career I was intensely frustrated by the lack of options available to our animal friends. I felt powerless and helpless. I realised that I could spend the next 30 years feeling like that, or I could do something to make a difference. I guess this frustration was inherited from a similar feeling of helplessness when I was a child and wasn’t strong enough, powerful enough or clever enough to save a wounded or distressed animal.
I know it sounds evangelical, but this is what I believe – we really can save the world and the animals on it, both wild and domestic, if we really want to. With the five animals I’ve seen today, I’ve saved a little bit of the world already. I have helped my little bit of the universe by offering new and alternative solutions to unique problems, and each animal will journey on with the chance of a healthy and happy life. Every animal is different, just as every human is different, and we learn something new every time that will ultimately further our thinking for the next animal that is entrusted to our care.
You can’t save every case – you wouldn’t want to either. The quality of life of each and every patient is the paramount consideration. I only try to save an animal when it’s in the best interest of their individual welfare, but where something can be done, and that something may lead to a positive future for that animal, I’m willing to try. When conventional solutions are not possible, I will work to find an alternative and I am always cognisant of the moral responsibility which I have to look after each and every animal as if it were my personal friend.
I want to give all of the animals all of the options all of the time and I want a team around me that genuinely believes that we can make the world a better place one animal at a time.
It all begins and ends with one animal that is loved by one human in one moment in time. That drives me, because if I truly deliver for that animal and for the family that loves that animal – if my team and I truly deliver the very best treatment available in the world today then that really does matter. It really does matter that our little bit of the universe is OK, and by holding that golden nugget of life in our hands and cherishing the love it represents, we genuinely do make the world a better place and we make a statement that society should look after its animals and that unconditional love shared between a human and an animal represents the very best of the human condition.
Can you see areas where your discoveries and techniques could be used to help people?
About 250 years ago vet and human medicine diverged and since then the only real interaction they have had is for human medical drugs and surgical devices to be developed on experimental animals for human benefit.
It is in my view quite ludicrous that the advances, which animals themselves facilitated for humans rarely came back to help them with their clinically relevant diseases, and that this will continue unless both vet and human medicine adopt the principles of a new thought process. This thought process is that of ‘One Medicine’. This is a platform of education and understanding and a framework of cooperation whereby all medical practitioners do talk openly and with respect to each other – and I think that respect is the key here. Not exploitation, but respect.
So, in this regard, my ultimate goal is for a well-trained veterinary specialist to sit at dinner with a well-trained human consultant surgeon and for both to have equal respect for each other, to learn from each other, to realise that all life is precious and to work together for the greater good of all animals – that’s humans, dogs, cats and tigers – the lot! It’s not so much to ask, is it?
Ebola virus in a fruit bat is the same as the virus in a human, they must be studied together; a cancer cell in a dog is almost identical to that in a human, they must be studied together; the actions of a cancer drug or a joint replacement or a machine for operating robotically inside the body without making a big scar are all the same in animals and in humans, they must be studied together. ‘One Medicine’ is the only rational option for human and animal healthcare moving forward and a wider understanding of this concept and application of its principles is my ultimate goal. I believe that it is only by vet and human medicine working together for the greater good of all species, that we will make real progress.
I have founded a charity called The Humanimal Trust that aims to champion this simultaneous advancement of animal and human healthcare. It will promote and support the ‘One Medicine’ message that will integrate the developments in veterinary and medical science and education, and ultimately build closer working relationships between doctors and vets so everyone benefits. Visit the charity website: www.humanimaltrust.org.uk
You’ve said you love animals more than humans – has that always been the way or was it since you became a vet?
Growing up on the family farm in Laois, Ireland, my best friend was my dog who was the greatest companion any boy could wish for. This friendship was unconditional, and I could always rely on him to be there for me. The love we feel for our animal family is incredibly special but, after two decades working with animals, I believe it pales in comparison to the love they have for us. I believe as humans, we know what unconditional love is, but we’re generally not capable of it. Animals are. Unlike us, they’re not governed by their moods, or what happened yesterday. They’re not judgmental or vindictive. Unless they’ve experienced repeated cruelty, they live in the moment, approaching every encounter as a new opportunity to share their love. That’s why the most vulnerable people often form the strongest bonds with their pets, because they’re most open to that unconditional love. Looking after that love, that drives me.
I believe the future of veterinary medicine is being shaped right now with the students just starting out and I go round to all of the veterinary schools and speak to every year group, hoping to inspire them and show them what is possible in their lifetime.
I’m intensely proud of our association with the University of Surrey, and our goal is that vet students can experience cutting-edge medical and surgical advance at the coalface in our clinical practice, whilst also being an out-ward facing research hub which welcomes collaboration and partnerships for the greater good of the vet students, the University, industry and both veterinary and human medicine.
I don’t think it matters whether you are male or female. What matters is that you care. People don’t care what you know until they know that you care! I personally feel that it’s a real shame that there isn’t a test for the size of your heart – because I think that compassion, empathy and love is way more important in a vet than brains.
Are there any animals whose cases have been particularly memorable that you can tell us about? Either making you laugh or making you cry!
Every now and then an animal comes in that reminds you of everything you have ever worked for in our mission to do our best for each and every animal entrusted into our care. You do form a special attachment with all of them, we are acutely aware that every patient is a beloved and important family member to someone, and they have invested their trust and hope to you at a critical time.
There are those occasions when an animal comes in with an unusual or challenging problem and you have to invest so much dedication to find an answer best able to return that animal to a pain free and functional quality of life, always considering the morally right path for that animal at that moment in time. Having been through a special journey together and then to ultimately see that animal go home is truly very special.
If you could change one thing about the veterinary world, what would it be?
I want to create the greatest veterinary practice that ever existed on planet Earth, by virtue of the big hearts of the people within it, by virtue of the technology and environments we pioneer for the greater good of animals, and by virtue of the lengths we will go to always do the right thing for each and every animal entrusted to our care. It’s not enough to be able to do something – it must be the right thing to do.
In my little bit of the world I have always believed that the animals who are our friends and our companions deserve superlative healthcare, and that the families of those animals have the right to choose access to the best medical and surgical options unfettered.
My team and I intend always to provide the best level of care in the world for each and every condition. I work in orthopaedics and neurosurgery, but I don’t work on lungs and hearts and livers. If I myself had a disease of my spine I would want to see a spinal specialist, I would not want to see a liver specialist, and vice versa. Why should this be any different for our animal friends? They have exactly the same medical problems as we do and yet it has been expected for many years now that vets should be all things to all people. I think that this attitude is changing and we want to lead the way with this new paradigm.
There is of course awareness by society that their primary care clinician is unlikely to be able to provide specialist care – and I believe that each person who loves an animal should be able to choose where they take their animal for specialist care. That’s why we have this year built what will become the very best centre for cancer and soft tissue surgery in Europe, staffed by surgeons and clinicians who are the very best in their fields globally.
We have a unique opportunity right now to create super-specialist hubs that work very much the same way that specialist human hospitals work. We strongly believe that our animal companions deserve to have a team of people, each world-class in their own discipline, helping to solve their problems and truly working as a team.
In clinical practice therefore, my ultimate goal is to set up patient-centric pathways whereby medical and surgical problems of our companion animals are analysed not just by one person and their opinion, but rather by a whole team of people who will each contribute a unique skill set such as medical or radiation or surgical or critical care support for the greater good of that animal.
What is the next big event coming up?
On the 5th and 6th September a very special weekend conference for veterinary professionals is taking place – The VET Festival (Veterinary Education for Tomorrow) is an exciting new education event for veterinary professionals in companion animal practice, and we hope to have lots of excited and dedicated minds there to learn and have fun together. We have a line-up of world-class speakers from around the globe lined up.
In the evening of the Saturday night, the 5th of September, a music concert is taking place and is open to everyone! ONE LIVE is taking place in the stunning grounds of The University of Surrey and is a music concert to celebrate the belief that you only have one life and there should be a symbiosis of effort to move animal and human medicine forward together, for animals and people.
The Festival has some incredible acts for the night who wanted to show their support, headlining the event is Mike and the Mechanics fresh from their first North American tour in 25 years. Mike Rutherford is a firm supporter of One Life, One Medicine. The Hoosiers and Hunter and the Bear will also be performing on the night. The night promises to be a truly memorable and fun evening for all, and we hope you can join us!
Find out more about this event and book your tickets via the website: www.onelivefestival.co.uk