Reviewing Noel Fitzpatrick’s new book is a wholly unfamiliar experience for me. I have reviewed many books - even written a couple or three - but I have never read one like this, much less reviewed it.
Not to say I don’t love dogs. I do. My dog is a handsome boxer collie cross with enormous soulful eyes, a deep chest that will fuel him running all day at speeds up to 30mph - I kid you not - and a truly accurate eye for a frisbee.
Why an unfamiliar experience? Well, I don’t usually cry at the start of a book. It may be during or it may be at the end, but never have I sat in floods of tears before the bottom of page one. And that is, I think, the first point to be made about ‘How Animals Saved My Life’. The book is first and foremost about Noel Fitzpatrick, a complicated and challenging individual, a major surgical innovator and deeply compassionate person, but very obviously one who lives on the raw edge of emotion the whole time.
He is searingly candid about his failings, speaks passionately about his animals, both patients and companions, and constantly returns to his familiar theme of unconditional love and his passionate belief in what he calls One Medicine - the idea that veterinary and ‘human’ medicine should be treated as one, feeding treatments, attitudes and surgical procedures off each other.
The page one experience was not actually about dogs. I hate films or books that have anything to do with dogs suffering, dying or being killed – my family teases me about it. This time it was a little boy’s rabbit; realizing that it was suffering from mixomatosis, Noel knew he had to tell the boy the worst news.
And that sets the tone for the book. We jump from emotional pillar to surgical post, from case study stories to theoretical or philosophical observations - on One Medicine, on relationships between humans, between animals and humans, and particularly between Noel and animals. Humans, he says, with characteristic candour and self-knowledge, he is not so good at.
I was astonished that he goes into such depth of technical detail about the complex operations he performs on his patients. From my limited understanding, you’d have to have at least a basic training in veterinary medicine to understand much of it. But it is always couched in raw human and emotional terms because his stories include the experience of the patients’ human parents, or guardians as he calls us.
The book is ultimately a passionate plea for the combined wisdom, knowledge and experience of the parallel worlds of human and animal medicine to do just that – combine. I think this is a very long shot and bound to run counter to the vested interests of many established medical authorities. But I see in Noel’s enthusiasm for the idea, his abiding love for animals and his profound wish for as many people as possible to benefit, as he has, through his relationships with them.
Like I said, not like any book I have read. If you were a cold-hearted critic, you would say it was a mish-mash; eloquently written, with a beautiful turn of phrase that some might attribute to a close encounter with the Blarney Stone, but an apparently disconnected collection of stories, spiritual insights, personal revelations and philosophical propositions. What prevents the book from being a mish-mash, and indeed lifts it into its own self-defined category, is the author’s raw, personal, confessional style. Like it or love it, hate it or admit to bafflement or confusion about it, this is a book that leaves a mark. You can’t be indifferent to Noel Fitzpatrick.
by Aidan Walker