AN Aberystwyth surgeon who has experienced both sides of the knife has set his sights on the stars as cameras follow his journey.
The last three and a half years have been a physical, emotional and mental rollercoaster for Neil Hopper, a surgeon originally from Aberystwyth and former Ysgol Penrhyncoch pupil, 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 to say the least - a surgeon who had performed hundreds of amputations throughout his career having to face the knife himself.
In a special documentary, Drych: Camau Tua'r Sêr which is available to view on S4C Clic and BBC iPlayer, we’ll learn about the effect the loss of his legs has had on him, and we follow his day-to-day work as a surgeon.
We will also hear about another recent part of his life’s story - the fact that he was chosen for the process of recruiting a para astronaut (an astronaut with a disability) by the European Space Agency.
He made the European Space Agency's shortlist for a para-astronaut but was then eliminated from the process.
After a period of treatment following the sepsis, Neil lost his toes and much of the skin on the underneath his feet, so amputation was decided upon.
"Signing the consent forms – well, there aren’t words to describe how I felt," said Neil. "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 received 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 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," says Neil. "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.
"You won't have a 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.”
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, the role struck a chord, and Neil decided to apply. 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!”
Despite not making it through, Dr Hopper was pleased to have made it so far in the application process and thankful for the ability to run on the beach again with his prosthetic legs and being back in work.