Reflecting on the miracle of life

Gail Bell talks to eminent obstetrician Prof Jim Dornan about his new memoir - spanning his 40-year medical career - and his famous son

HE HAS delivered more than 6,000 babies but Professor Jim Dornan doesn't mind admitting he is still stunned - and often surprised - by the miracle of new life.

Although now retired from hands-on delivery, the eminent Belfast obstetrician and gynaecologist has much to say on the subject of babies, mothers, midwives, doctors and the National Health Service in general - all of which he covers with wit and honesty in An Everyday Miracle to be launched tomorrow.

He may have written scores of medical papers but the former director of Fetal Medicine at the Royal Maternity Hospital in Belfast admits to being slightly wary about venturing into more creative quarters with this, his first publication aimed at the reading public.

His memoir spans a 40-year career in medicine and has been described as "heartwarming, heartbreaking and bursting with humanity and tenderness" by Dr Rhona Mahony, master of the National Maternity Hospital in Dublin and key speaker at tomorrow's launch.

Prof Dornan may be past senior vice-president of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists and hold chairs at both Queen's University Belfast and the University of Ulster - as well as being widely recognised as a successful campaigner in the field of international women's health - but lately he must answer to the more mundane title of 'Jamie Dornan's dad'.

It is a new description which sits comfortably on the easy-going doctor's shoulders, which are liberal and broad in every sense of the word and, as a father, he couldn't be more proud. "I watched [Jamie] in The Fall and thought he was great but it was also a bit scary, seeing your son play a murderer," he begins, stopping to have a chuckle when recounting how he had been told by one viewer - keen to avoid any whiff of disapproval - that at least "he was a murderer who cleaned up after himself". "We as a family are justly very proud of Jamie - he's talented and grounded and a credit to his school (Methody), his amazing friends, his family and himself."

Having something of the mature matinee idol good looks about him, did the good doctor ever want to get in on the act himself?

No, if he hadn't entered the medical profession he would have been a teacher, he declares without hesitation, although with strong views on health policy - particularly in regard to what he sees as Stormont's ill-advised abortion guidelines - you get the feeling he would have made an impressive politician as well.

He treads lightly around the hot abortion topic in his book but it is clear he doesn't take kindly to male politicians - or the Church - prescriptively dictating the rights and needs of women he has spent a lifetime understanding and caring for.

If his long career has taught him anything it is there is no such thing as 'one size fits all' and throughout the many poignant case studies recounted in the book, (some names have been changed, some haven't), his belief in balance, truth, choice and really listening to women is reassuringly apparent. Things may have improved since the 1970s when husbands had to sign consent forms before wives could be wheeled into theatre for sterilisation procedures but Prof Dornan believes there is still some way to go before we have a truly equal society in terms of gender.

In fact, he pulls no punches when berating his own profession which, in his early career at least, was blatantly "chauvinistic" - although he believes the pendulum may have swung too far the other way when it comes to modern-day antenatal care.

In one chapter he muses: "Forty years on, the obstetrician has become the assistant to the midwife", and he would like to see a higher degree of truly 'shared care' as practised in "the golden age" two decades ago when doctors and nurses were equally involved in the care of low-risk mothers-to-be.

Not everything in the delivery suite in the 70s was rosy of course, even when viewed through the tinted veil of nostalgia, and Prof Dornan was affronted to find that even he, as a young registrar, was barred from attending the birth of his first child - daughter, Liesa. "I felt physically nauseated witnessing the pain of labour suffered by my wife Lorna," he recalls, adding that his helplessness was not eased at being "put out of the room" as per the conventional wisdom of the time. Sadly, the mother of his three children - Liesa, Jessica and Jamie - died from cancer some years ago, but he found happiness again with fellow obstetrician and gynaecologist Samina, whom he married in 2002. "I don't want to be turning into a grumpy old man in my retirement," he announces, "but there are parts of the National Health Service I worry about and I think for men - and women - entering my profession today, there is an emphasis on risk aversion and covering your back ahead of just instinctively wanting to help people. "There have been sweeping advances in drugs, screening techniques, foetal viability and more enlightened attitudes but I can't help feeling that the old skills learned at the bedside rather than in the lab are being dampened down."

Not unsurprisingly, given the controversy that always seems to surround them, the dreaded C-word - Caesarean section - provides fertile ground for stories.

One of note involved the Pope and a Drogheda woman who was under the care of a young Dr Dornan based at Daisy Hill Hospital in Newry in 1979. Although presenting with no pressing clinical need, unique social circumstances prevailed and the young mother was permitted to have a Caesarean because she didn't have a phone and lived "up in the hills"

near the field where Pope John Paul was set to address a million people during his visit to Ireland.

Poignant and engaging, An Everyday Miracle is full of fascinating accounts and commentary, chronicling the sad and the happy, the ordinary and phenomenal, all reflecting the precarious but precious nature of life itself - as the author, now a doting grandfather, knows only too well. Eight years ago he was diagnosed with leukaemia and now each day is a reminder of how amazing life really is - whether he is personally involved in delivering it or living it to the full on the golf course. "I'm fine now; I just had a check-up the other day," he reveals, "but when you come face-to-face with your own mortality, it is a wake-up call. There are so many things we medics still don't understand: why do healthy babies die in the womb, for instance, why do their hearts inexplicably stop beating? "But the corollary is also true: why do these tragedies mostly not occur? Much of pregnancy and birth is indeed a miracle. Life is a miracle and we must appreciate it and live it to the full."

n An Everyday Miracle by Prof Jim Dornan, published by Blackstaff Press, will be launched at Queen's University Belfast tomorrow evening. Available now, priced £9.99.


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