Noel Fitzpatrick, a.k.a. ‘The Bionic Vet’ is an Irish born neuro-orthopaedic veterinary surgeon best known for the pioneering treatments performed by himself and his team at his state of the art Surrey veterinary practice, Fitzpatrick Referrals.If you think you may have heard of him already, you’d probably be right- Noel Fitzpatrick and the cutting edge work done within his practice were featured in a six part BBC documentary aired in 2010 called ‘The Bionic Vet,’ which received international interest as a result.
The most famous case highlighted in ‘The Bionic Vet’ series, now famous across the world, is the amazing story of Oscar, a little black cat from Jersey who had both of his back paws severed in an accident with a combine harvester in 2009. Understandably when faced with an accident of this type, most owners- and indeed vets- would consider putting the animal to sleep to be the only viable option. Oscar’s owners, Mike Nolan and Kate Allen, rushed Oscar to their local vet expecting precisely this outcome. However, thanks to the quick thinking of Peter Haworth, Oscar’s original vet, Oscar was given painkillers and made comfortable while deciding if it was viable and morally appropriate to try and save Oscar’s life. Noel Fitzpatrick and his multi million pound state of the art referral clinic in Surrey were already well known within the veterinary world at this point- although not as well known as they were about to become. Peter Haworth contacted Fitzpatrick referrals, and sent through Oscar’s x-rays in a last ditch attempt to find out if there was any way of saving Oscar’s life, and more importantly, being able to return to him a quality of life in which he would be happy, mobile and free of pain.
At this stage, Noel Fitzpatrick was already considered to be a pioneering neuro-orthopaedic surgeon and expert in the field of animal bioengineering- something that was previously considered to be the preserve of human medicine only. Upon receiving Oscar’s x-rays, Noel developed the idea of creating and implanting a pair of artificial bionic ‘feet’ for Oscar- which would be the first surgery of its kind performed anywhere in the world.Noel Fitzpatrick later said that the idea came to him as a result of studying the character of Wolverine in the original X- Men film- that’s quite some lateral thinking!
For any pet owner, it’s only too easy to cling to any hope of preserving the life of a much loved pet- but when you have to take into account the recovery period, the pain and discomfort involved in treatment, the potential of after surgery complications and the cat’s short term and long term happiness and standard of living, the decision is far from simple. Faced with a potential opportunity to save their cat’s life, Oscar’s owners underwent a difficult period of soul searching and consideration of all of the moral, ethical and logistical concerns before finally making the decision to have Oscar flown over from Jersey to Fitzpatrick Referrals in Surrey in order to give him a chance of recovery.
The creation of a pair of artificial bionic feet and the process of implanting them onto what was left of Oscar’s legs was a world first, something without precedent and no historical data held to give any representation of the kind of resulting success or failure that could be expected from the procedure.The implants were custom made especially to fit Oscar by the biomedical engineering department of University College London, and are of a type known as intraosseous transcutaneous amputation prosthetics, or ‘ITAP’s.’ In order to create and fit the implants, holes were drilled into Oscar’s ankle bones, and the implants created with a honeycomb structure to allow skin and muscle to grow through and around them, permanently fusing them to Oscar’s legs. Noel Fitzpatrick cites observation of the way a deer’s antlers grow through the skin as his inspiration for the design of the implants, minimising the chances of rejection and complications such as infection.The actual ‘feet’ which Oscar would eventually use to walk on, were then screwed into the ends of the implants and can then be replaced and updated as they wear out or further technological advances are made.
Understandably, both the lead up to Oscar’s surgery and the recovery time after the implants were fitted was long, arduous and painful. Oscar was only two and a half years old at the time that he had his accident, his young age being one of the factors which helped Noel Fitzpatrick and Oscar’s owners to decide upon eventual treatment. Not all cats, in fact not many cats, would have successfully weathered a prolonged period of inpatient veterinary treatment and the associated pain and discomfort involved in the procedure, and Oscar’s bright and bold outlook and generally laid back nature formed a large part of the decision to go ahead with treatment and the conclusion that Oscar would be able to manage the procedure without becoming significantly depressed.Veterinary nurses caring for Oscar throughout his treatment not only became understandably very attached to this brave and good natured little cat, but commented that he had an incredibly perky personality and dealt with everything that happened to him calmly and stoically, much better than most other cats would have been able to- certainly one of the key factors in the eventual success of the procedure.After the implants had been fitted to Oscar and allowed to settle, which understandably took some time, Oscar’s new detachable ‘feet’ were screwed into the implants... And Oscar was encouraged to walk. Noel Fitzpatrick, his owners and all of the veterinary staff present held their breath, waiting to see if Oscar would be willing or able to walk on his new feet.They didn’t have long to wait... Within seconds of having his new feet attached to his implants, Oscar was up- and off! Not only was he walking and running with apparent ease, and much faster than Noel or any of the veterinary staff had reasonably expected, but he immediately began climbing a pile of boxes and had to be lifted down! After that there was no stopping him, and Oscar has gone from strength to strength ever since, with the eventual result of his protracted and painful pioneering treatment proving to be an even greater success than anyone could possibly have predicted.
After the runaway success of Oscar’s pioneering surgery and apparent ease of adaptation to his new bionic feet, Oscar went home to his family in Jersey, where he lives happily today. After wearing out his first set of bionic feet relatively quickly due to being an incredibly active little cat, a second pair were fitted, utilising updated technology to create miniature blades similar in appearance and function to the prosthetic feet used by human amputee’s for running and sport, which gave Oscar an even more natural gait and greatly increased mobility.
As a result of Noel Fitzpatrick’s pioneering surgery on Oscar, the techniques and prosthesis he used are now being tested and researched for potential use on human patients. Noel Fitzpatrick has stated that he greatly welcomes a collaborative approach between pioneering veterinary and human medicine, and now works closely with surgeons who specialise in prosthesis and surgery for human amputees.
Fitzpatrick Referrals in Surrey is a referral clinic- this means that it operates differently to the kind of practice where you can just make an appointment and take your pet along for a diagnosis. In order to have any particular case seen by Noel Fitzpatrick or one of his team, first of all your own vet must examine your animal and decide if they think that consultation with Fitzpatrick Referrals is appropriate, and then present the case to the practice for their consideration. There are many specialist referral clinics in the UK, and Fitzpatrick Referrals is just one of them. Unless your animal’s condition falls specifically under the heading of the kind of case that Fitzpatrick Referrals specialises in or deals with, it is unlikely that treatment at Fitzpatrick Referrals will be appropriate or indicated for your own pet.However, if you feel that it may be appropriate, you can always ask your vet to consider referral and have the practice consider your case.Treatment in any referral clinic, particularly a highly complex cutting edge procedure, is generally very expensive. The total cost of providing Oscar’s care and new feet from start to finish is estimated to be in the region of four million pounds! Having your pet fully and comprehensively insured will go some may towards covering the cost of expensive veterinary treatments, although understandably even this has its limits. However, if you find yourself in the unique situation that your pet has an unusual condition or injury which might make them a candidate for an entirely new prototype treatment method, you may find that the referral practice will absorb some of the cost of the treatment as part of their research and experimentation process, or be able to find sponsorship to help to fund the procedure.