Labour of love for Ballyfin's bionic vet

Petlovers will no doubt have been addicted to the recent BBC1 documentary series 'The Bionic Vet' but not all may know that the pioneering vet Noel Fitzpatrick is one of our own, having grown up in Ballyfin. He spoke to Lynda Kiernan about his farming background and what drives him in his career.

Noel Fitzpatrick can cite a particular moment in his childhood that sparked his desire to improve life for animals.

"I used to do the night lambing because I'm a bit of a nightowl. I remember finding a sheep in a drain, I got her dead lamb out, then put my hand in again and pulled out a second lamb, alive. I remember trudging back in the freezing cold, but the lamb died, and I felt useless, I realised that knowledge wasn't enough and decided to set my sights on trying to address that."

At the Patrician College Ballyfin, Noel studied hard, locked in his room, knowing he wanted to do more than farming, and made it to study veterinary medicine in UCD.

Now aged 40, Noel has a multimillion pound state of the art centre in Surrey, England, and uses revolutionary new surgical techniques to save and improve the lives of thousands of pets. He literally rebuilds animals using a whole range of metal structures, nuts, bolts, implants and groundbreaking procedures. For many of the animals referred to him, he's their last hope.

Oscar the cat is one such lucky pet to have been treated by Noel, having being given two new bionic feet and the chance to walk again after an accident with a combine harvester. Oscar is now an internet sensation. "With 174 million hits, we can't be wrong" observes Noel wryly.

Noel acknowledges that many Irish pet owners are less extreme about the lengths they will go to for their animals than their neighbours across the water, with putting injured pets 'to sleep' still a common solution. "I understand that, I grew up on a farm, delivering lambs and calves. Animals are functional." But Noel, who always saw animals as his friends growing up, is passionate about giving them as much care as possible.

"It's a mark of civilised society that we look after animals, a statement of love." He argues that "vets have the power to put animals to sleep - why not have the power to keep them alive?" Not at any cost though, he also takes into account the age and general health of an animal, and doesn't operate if it would put them through undue pain and suffering.

The vet explains his reasons for agreeing to make the series. "It's not a big ego trip. I wanted to make people aware that this technology is available. People don't know what vets do from day to day. I think they are undervalued, they serve an important role and they have a responsibility to choose between life and death."

An unashamed workaholic, Noel sleeps in his office five days a week, sometimes working a punishing 19-hour day. "It's a choice I make. I've haven't found a work/life balance." Unsurprisingly with that schedule, Noel hasn't found a wife yet, though adds jokingly "Any beautiful Irish girls willing to put up with a vampire are welcome to come and visit me."

Despite the plush clinic he has created, Noel is not motivated by money or material gains.

"I don't believe in wealth. What's important are the things you love and the things you do. To be loved better and live longer, what else is there?”

Noel is from a family of five who have all been successful in their chosen careers and his mother Rita still resides in Ballyfin though sadly his father Sean passed away four years ago.

“Dad was a workaholic too. As a kid, he used to milk 50 cows by hand.”

He misses the quiet conversations and philosophies he shared with his father, sometimes while they sheltered from the rain in the haybarn, and sometimes while they toiled together pulling weeds. Noel remembers his childhood complaint “Daddy I can’t weed any more” and the wise reply that has stayed with him “Noel, carry on weeding. Once there’s enough thorns in there, no more can get in.”

Through the endless hours and pressure this man faces following his vocation, it’s a valuable lesson he holds on to.

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