The incredible story of the space quest of a surgeon who specialised in amputation and lost both legs to sepsis is the subject of a new Welsh documentary.
Neil Hopper is Consultant Vascular Surgeon at the Royal Cornwall Hospital Trust, and Senior Clinical Lecturer at the University of Exeter, based at Truro.
Now, a Welsh language documentary is following Neil after he was shortlisted in the European Space Agency’s search for a para astronaut – an astronaut with a disability.
Neil, who has performed hundreds of amputations throughout his career, lost both his legs to sepsis in 2019. After he lost his toes and much of the skin on the underneath his feet, leg amputation was the only option. Neil said of the experience: “I remember imagining the operation – operations which I do all the time, and thinking that power tools were going to be used on me. That was really difficult to process.”
“I was in hospital for about six or seven weeks. The physical changes in my body were fairly easy to understand, but what I didn’t understand were the psychological changes and how hard it was just to fit back into family life.”
A turning point came when Neil began to use his prosthetic legs. “I was starting to think I’d never be able to go back to work, I’d never be able to play football with my son, walk the dog on the beach – that’s the kind of mindset I had. But once I got legs, things started to change overnight, the future didn’t look so bleak.
Neil had been advised to reconsider his career, and said:
“I was determined to go back to work. I wanted to prove that they were completely wrong. Throughout my career I’d always tried to imagine what it was like to have an amputation, so I didn’t expect to get the answer. I didn’t think I’d get the chance to see what it’s like on the other side of the knife. My experience has made me think more about how I communicate with patients. I believe it has made me a better doctor.”
Neil’s first-hand experiences of services for amputees has led to improvements throughout Devon and Cornwall.
Now, his life is full and he is ready to spread his wings still further. In February 2021, a call came from the European Space Agency for people to fill the newly advertised astronaut position, for the first time in over a decade, as part of their Parastronaut Feasibility Project.
Neil, a space fanatic, said: “When I saw the advertisement from the European Space Agency for a para astronaut, I had to put in an application. The criteria were quite specific; you had to have a doctorate in engineering or medicine, you had to have a disability below the knee, and you had to speak a second language – hey, Welsh! At first my wife Rachel thought I was completely crazy!”
In December 2021, he was told that he had been selected for the recruitment process. Follow Neil’s progress in the documentary Drych: Camau Tua’r Sêr, which airs with English subtitles on S4C, on Sunday February 26. The Cwmni Da production for S4C will be available on demand, at S4C Clic; BBC iPlayer and other platforms.