Story transcripts

The Bionic Vet

Friday, August 20, 2010

Reporter: Liam Bartlett
Producer: Karen Willing

We're always hearing about amazing breakthroughs in the medical world.

But why should all that cutting edge whiz-bangery be reserved for two-legged patients?

On Sunday night, you're going to meet a very talented and flamboyant vet who's pioneered bionic limbs for animals.

He recently made international headlines when he fitted Oscar the cat with a dashing new set of titanium legs.

In fact, the procedure has been so successful, it's now being used in human operating theatres.

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Full transcript:

KATE NOLAN: Very relaxed little boy, aren't you? He's very soppy. He just takes everything in his stride, doesn't he, really?

MIKE NOLAN: Absolutely.

LIAM BARTLETT: And what a stride it is. Oscar the cat is stepping out in style these days. Kate and Mike Nolan have found themselves the proud owners of a moggy megastar, famous far and wide as the first feline in the world with a pair of bionic feet.

MIKE NOLAN: One of the weirdest ones I found on Google was a mention of Oscar in the Himalayan Times.


MIKE NOLAN: Which is just surreal.

LIAM BARTLETT: He made a Tibetan newspaper?



LIAM BARTLETT: Fantastic - Oscar the superstar.

DR NOEL FITZPATRICK: I love him, I genuinely do. In my job, you occasionally get emotionally involved with the patients and you try and stay as detached as you can, but I think every now and then, you can't help but care for the life that's behind those eyes.

LIAM BARTLETT: Oscar owes his life and his shiny new paws to veterinary surgeon Noel Fitzpatrick. He helped develop world-first bionic technology to improve the lives of animal patients like Oscar. But this passionate Irishman's ultimate goal is to see his medical techniques more widely accepted.

DR NOEL FITZPATRICK: Anything is possible as long as we have the imagination to create it and the wherewithal and the will to make it happen.

LIAM BARTLETT: A catnap in a neighbour's field at harvesting time cost Oscar dearly. The combine harvester has chopped him off here, just underneath his ankle. Both back feet were gone and at the time, Kate and Mike wondered if it was kinder to put him down. Noel Fitzpatrick offered an alternative that sounded like science fiction - bionic limbs.

KATE NOLAN: We had a lot of conversations about that, did a lot of soul searching 'cause at the end of the day, all we wanted was for it to be good for Oscar. 'Cause although it might have meant us losing a pet, we weren't prepared to do it if it was not going to give him a quality of life.

LIAM BARTLETT: You didn't want it to be just an experiment. You wanted...

KATE NOLAN: No, absolutely not.

LIAM BARTLETT: to be good for Oscar?



LIAM BARTLETT: Bionics just means the marriage of mechanics and biology to create functional life. But Noel has advanced the technology with a prosthetic implant called an ITAP, which amazingly allows skin and bone to permanently attach, and effectively becomes part of the body. In Oscar's case, that meant twice the challenge, putting two ITAPs in two moving bones - something no-one had ever attempted. And all the while trying to maintain his feline flexibility.

DR NOEL FITZPATRICK: I wanted him to walk like a normal cat and I thought that has to be possible. It's not been done, has to be possible. But in order to do that, I had to take the ITAP and make it fit in the anklebone itself. This thing could explode like driving a pickaxe into glass.

LIAM BARTLETT: There was nothing to work with, was there?


LIAM BARTLETT: But you got it right twice?


LIAM BARTLETT: Oscar may have been a pioneer, but the technology is now being applied to patients like Muppy, whose back leg is being attacked by a cancerous tumour. Hopefully, the ITAP will make a walk through the clover more comfortable.

DR NOEL FITZPATRICK: And this is the peg that will stick outside, onto which Muppy's foot will attach.

LIAM BARTLETT: The new foot?


LIAM BARTLETT: How long will it take Muppy's skin to grow over that disc?


LIAM BARTLETT: Is that all?

DR NOEL FITZPATRICK: Based on the other dogs that we've done, yeah.

LIAM BARTLETT: With a multimillion-dollar practice, this self-confessed workaholic isn't your average suburban vet, and he likes things done his way. People must come from all over the UK?

DR NOEL FITZPATRICK: Whoa, whoa, whoa, two feet away, dude. There you go. Thanks. Two feet from me at all times, everything.


DR NOEL FITZPATRICK: I want science and art to merge together. It's not a coincidence that the theatre behind us is called 'theatre'. It's a place where we create something from nothing, from broken biology, from the words on the page, we create the theatre.

LIAM BARTLETT: It's a performance?

DR NOEL FITZPATRICK: It's a performance for the animal, and only for the animal.

LIAM BARTLETT: It's not for you?

DR NOEL FITZPATRICK: I'm not giving you a performance. Actually, I could care less what you think. We stand for life. We stand for progress in medicine. We stand for moving things ahead in humans and in animals, for the betterment of all creatures.

LIAM BARTLETT: Noel even holds his own day of celebration. He calls it VetFest, and it's his way of saying 'thank you' to his 69 staff, referring vets and friends and family.

DR NOEL FITZPATRICK: That's a magnificent hat.

MRS FITZPATRICK: Sure, I know. I have to look nice - I'm your mother!

DR NOEL FITZPATRICK: You look fantastic.

MRS FITZPATRICK: How are you? Thank you very much. Shall I put me best foot forward?

DR NOEL FITZPATRICK: Humans without animals would have a very, very, very lonely planet and every day we destroy species after species, we do, on this Earth, and I think that man ignores the sentiments of animals at his peril. They have feelings, they have needs, they have wants, and my job is to be the guardian of those feelings.

LIAM BARTLETT: And for the owners like Mick Mallin, it's saving the life of a loved one they thought they'd lost.

MICK MALLIN: Here is all metal.


MICK MALLIN: Completely metal, yeah.

LIAM BARTLETT: No bone, all metal?

MICK MALLIN: Um, that's where the implant is.


MICK MALLIN: So, that's that's the bit, that's um...

LIAM BARTLETT: The $6 million dog?

MICK MALLIN: He is indeed. That's the, that's the bionics.

LIAM BARTLETT: Charlie was less than 18 months old when he developed a cancerous tumour in his leg. The Mallins were advised to amputate, and even then Charlie would probably only live for another three months. Noel Fitzpatrick offered their only hope.

MICK MALLIN: He was very honest. He said, "your dog's going to die of secondary cancer, "but I can save the leg and we'll see what happens."

DR NOEL FITZPATRICK: All I did was chop out a piece of his arm and put some metal in it.

LIAM BARTLETT: Noel makes it sound simple. And maybe it is, for someone with his skills and experience. Oh Charlie, that's outrageous - you've got a stuffed duck.

DENNIS HOY: I took retirement four years ago and I got Roly three years ago. It was part of my retirement package. I thought I'd get myself a dog when I retired.

LIAM BARTLETT: Dennis Hoy was devastated when he found out his American bulldog, Roly, had a malignant bone tumour. But once again, Noel worked his bionic magic and in a world first procedure, gave Roly a new hip, a new leg and a new life.

DENNIS HOY: Inside there he's had a new leg bone put in, a titanium leg bone.


DENNIS HOY: And cause it's metal on the end of the bone, it can't go into the hip, so he's had a hip replacement - got titanium cup in the hip as well.

LIAM BARTLETT: That looks fantastic. Unless you really got up close and gave it a bit of a rub, you wouldn't know. Look at that. Pet owners might love him, but Noel and his techniques have come in for some criticism. Does it make you angry, Noel, if people think you're treating your animals like lab rats?

DR NOEL FITZPATRICK: Yes, it makes me angry. Get lost if you think for one second that I would ever, in a million years, do what is wrong for the animal. I look them in the eye, I make the best judgement I have - I can, on that situation, and I say, "Come on, let's have a go at life."

LIAM BARTLETT: The results can be spectacular, but back in surgery, there's no room for error. And right now, things are touch and go for Muppy.

DR NOEL FITZPATRICK: It would be so easy to get a spiral fracture in this - the drill is jamming at about 3.3. Great.

LIAM BARTLETT: Is it normally that tight?

DR NOEL FITZPATRICK: Yeah, it's just not normally this brittle. This is a very brittle bone.

LIAM BARTLETT: But two days later, another success story. Muppy's one happy puppy.

DR NOEL FITZPATRICK: Five weeks before the frame comes off and her foot goes on. In five weeks time, she will have a new foot.

LIAM BARTLETT: And everything's going OK?

DR NOEL FITZPATRICK: Everything's going great. On you go then.

LIAM BARTLETT: Oh go, Muppy, you little beauty. The really intriguing part about this is that, while the bionic vet has implanted an animal version of this into 12 different cats and dogs, so far, it's only been used on two human amputees. The good news is - it's proving a success. So much so, that one of them is relying on this to help him - wait for it - climb Mount Kilimanjaro. How's the new leg travelling?

MARK: Oh, it's going really well. I couldn't have asked for it to be better.

LIAM BARTLETT: Mark, climbing Mount Kilimanjaro - that will be a phenomenal effort?

MARK: It should be interesting, that's for sure. No sockets, no soreness.

LIAM BARTLETT: They'll be looking at you going, "that bionic bastard."

MARK: Yeah. It's not really fair, is it?

LIAM BARTLETT: Mark was only 19 when he lost his leg above the knee in a motorbike accident. He's had A standard prosthetic leg for the past 17 years, but since having the ITAP surgery, it's like the clock has been turned back.

MARK: It just feels like they've given me my leg back. If I'd have had this when I first had my amputation, you know, I would never have really felt disabled in the first place.

LIAM BARTLETT: It's fantastic to hear you say that.

MARK: It is amazing. I mean, I can't say it strongly enough, it's just been amazing.

LIAM BARTLETT: You can just click it on and off?

MARK: Oh, well, I'll show you. The, an old leg, my old socketed leg I could, it was held on by sort of suction and ah, to take it off I'd have to pull out a valve in the socket and then um...

LIAM BARTLETT: That's phenomenal.

MARK: And then it would take about 10 minutes to reattach it. I mean that's, that's the leg. There's a little trick, I don't know if you want to see it, but there's a little party piece that I do now to demonstrate the rotational fail safe operating.

MARK: You can, you can really throw your leg over?

MARK: Yeah, so, but it's not really supposed to do that, obviously.

LIAM BARTLETT: As for Oscar the bionic cat, he's been living at the practice since his accident last October. And when he does go home, they'll be no more frolicking in the field for him.

MIKE NOLAN: We've grounded him, effectively, because the last time we let him out, he came back legless.

DR NOEL FITZPATRICK: The future is the people who come into this place and see what's possible, set their minds free.

LIAM BARTLETT: And the animals?

DR NOEL FITZPATRICK: And there's nothing in this world more important to me than looking in that animal's eyes, and when I look in their eyes and I see life coming back, that's what makes me tick.

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