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S4C documentary follows Welsh surgeon’s quest to become the first disabled man in space

26 Feb 2023 4 minute read
Vascular surgeon Neil Hopper. Photo S4C

The last three and a half years have been a physical, emotional and mental rollercoaster for Neil Hopper, a surgeon from Wales who has now settled in Truro in Cornwall.

Neil is a vascular surgeon who specialises in amputations. The fact that he himself lost both his legs to sepsis in 2019 has been an ironic, cruel twist to his tale – a surgeon who had performed hundreds of amputations throughout his career having to face the knife himself.

A documentary about his ordeal and recovery and now his hopes to become the first para-astronaut, airs tonight on S4C.

Following the lifesaving operations, the surgeon thought he would never be able to resume his career, or do the things which he had previously taken for granted, like walking his dog and playing football with his son.

It was only when he started using prosthetic legs that he regained some hope for the future, and began rebuilding his life and career.

Now the specialist surgeon is hoping to take a ‘giant leap’ and become the first disabled man in space.

European Space Agency

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.

Having always had a great interest in things related to space, Neil decided to apply and in December 2021, he was told that he had been selected for the recruitment process.

“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!”

Looking back on his experiences he said: “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.”

Prosthetic legs provided the turning point in his recovery.

“I was starting to think I’d never be able to go back to work, I’d never be able to play football with Harry, 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.”

At the time, he was told that he had better reconsider his career, as it would not be “possible or practical” for him to return to the theatre.

“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.”

Dafydd Rhys Williams

If he succeeds in his mission, Neil will become the second Welsh speaking man in space, following the trail blazed by Canadian-Welsh astronaut Dafydd Rhys Williams, whose father was born in Bargoed in the South Wales Valleys.

Back in 2011 Dr Williams went on flights on Endeavour and an earlier shuttle, Columbia.

He said at the time: “I’ve had the privilege of going on two missions, doing three space walks. The Welsh dragon has flown in space, I was able to speak a bit of Welsh.

“I think it will be very exciting to look to the next generation of Welsh astronauts who will be able to go into space.”

The documentary called Drych: Camau Tua’r Sêr, follows Neil’s recruitment journey, and his effort to reach space airs with English subtitles on S4C, this evening (February 26) at 9PM.

It will also be available on demand, at S4C Clic; BBC iPlayer and other platforms.

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