Belfast Telegraph

Life, love and family values

Professor JIM Dornan may be best-known as one of Ulster's most respected medics but lately he's started turning up in showbiz columns and celebrity mags.

Professor JIM Dornan may be best-known as one of Ulster's most respected medics but lately he's started turning up in showbiz columns and celebrity mags.

Admittedly the consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist at Belfast's Royal is a very suave, very young-looking 56-year-old who cuts quite a dash as he zooms up in his Aston Martin for our meeting at his private practice in the south of the city.

You could see how he wouldn't look out of place in a nightclub.

But, alas, he hasn't excited the gossipmongers in his own right at all. Instead, his regular namechecks are as a kind of addendum. Or, put it another way, Prof Dornan is the father of the young man who goes out with Keira Knightly, star of films like "Pirates of the Caribbean" and "King Arthur".

"Ah, yes, Keira," he says, fixing me with a you-would-wouldn't-you smile, when the subject of Jamie, a model, and his famous girlfriend is inevitably raised.

Yes, Prof Dornan, I say, Keira.

"Well, she's a very nice person indeed," he begins warily. Clearly, he's anxious not to appear rude by refusing to discuss the headlining couple but understandably he's also cautious about blurting out too much.

"I've met her a few times and she's actually very straightforward," he volunteers.

Has she visited Northern Ireland?

"She has, and like Jamie she's a huge fan of the sandwiches you get in Doorsteps on the Lisburn Road."

Despite his reticence, Prof Dornan evidently thinks Keira, 19, has been wonderful for Jamie who, though just 23, has had to contend with more than his fair share of tragedy.

In 1997, when he was just 16, his mother died from cancer. Then, two years later, four close schoolfriends at Methodist College, Belfast, were killed in a horrific road crash in Donegal.

"Jamie's one of the nicest people I know," says his father proudly. "Obviously his life has been coloured by the deaths of his mother and his friends and I think it has left him with a great sense of comradeship. All of it has made him very thoughtful about life in general and about what he wants to do. He got his A levels but didn't want to go down the academic route. Then his sisters persuaded him to enter the Channel 4 show Model Behaviour and he ended up signed with the Select Agency.

"But, yes, he is getting on with it and is enjoying himself."

Perhaps it's because of the sadness and loss they've had to face, but there is a sense that the Dornans, as a family, now make a point of seizing the moment. Certainly, if Jamie has found the will to push ahead with life, his positive attitude probably, to some degree, stems from the example set by his remarkable father.

Similarly, Jamie's older sisters, Liesa and Jessica are following their own distinctive paths. Liesa, who is married, is marketing director for Ulster Linen, while Jessica gave up her role as fashion designer with Diesel Ireland to work in a lion breeding park in South Africa.

Prof Dornan, who is also senior vice president of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, was bereft when his wife, Lorna, succumbed to pancreatic cancer at the age of just 50. But within a year of her death he had fallen in love with Samina, a beautiful trainee obstetrician from Pakistan. There's a considerable age gap - "about two decades," he admits - but the couple fell deeply in love and married two years ago.

Prof Dornan says that his first wife Lorna "always knew I would move on after her death. In fact at my wedding to Samina my best man made a joke of the fact that Lorna had given me a list of ten women that I must on no account marry. The truth is that I agreed totally with Lorna's list. But, personally, I think men are quite useless on their own, so it was always going to happen."

Lorna, who'd been a nurse, fell ill just days after the couple had returned from a relaxing weekend in Madrid with the Ulster Obstetrics Society. Initially doctors diagnosed painless jaundice but shortly afterwards cancer was detected. She died 18 months later.

Ironically Prof Dornan's own medical knowledge compounded the wretchedness of the situation. "That was the most frustrating thing - knowing there was nothing could be done," he recalls. "The first three weeks of her illness were incredible - the whole family was totally devastated but then once we accepted the diagnosis, being a doctor I knew that she was going to die.

"There's no doubt that everybody has to have hope and the whole family and our friends did have hope but it was hope tinged with a major dose of realism.

"And, of course, it was important the kids had hope so that whatever time left was positive but I also had to be realistic with them about something that I knew was inevitable.

"What I feel most now is how much Lorna would have loved watching the kids progress - Jamie's potential development, Liesa's success in business, Jessica's wanderlust. Lorna would have loved all that.

"But she was amazing throughout her illness and remained a wonderful mother to the end."

A close friend craftily engineered his first meeting with Samina. "I was giving a lecture in Dublin to the Four Provinces Institute of Obstetrics and an obstetrician friend in Limerick knew that I would like Samina and sent her along to the conference. She's my type - long dark hair. And so I was very, very lucky indeed."

There's a sense she has utterly transformed his life, bringing back laughter and fun. "Samina is amazing," he says, launching into a series of anecdotes about their domestic bliss.

"I do a lot of the cooking," he chuckles. "Well, Samina told me she didn't come 3,000 miles to work in the kitchen."

She's also signed them up with a personal trainer. "I used to come home and flop on the sofa, exhausted. Now I love working out - and the buzz of all those endorphins afterwards."

Yet it's also a relationship founded on deep understanding and kindness. They still live in the luxurious home in Cultra, Co Down, that he shared with Lorna, though Samina has recently finished overseeing a revamp of the interior. "The house had, as all houses do after a couple of decades, got a bit tired," explains Prof Dornan. "I'd already started to change it and now, under Samina's influence, it has been dramatically changed."

Nor are there any off-limits topics for conversation. "I do talk to Samina about Lorna and, of course, many in our circle of friends knew Lorna and mention her, too," he says. "Samina doesn't mind that at all."

But he's honest enough to admit it did take a while for his children to adjust to his new partner.

"My kids have been great, though no-one would say it was easy at the start. They knew it was going to happen - they just did not know when it would happen and who it would be.

"But Samina and they do get on and, with hard work on all sides, we have got to the situation we are in now. Samina would be more of a friend to the girls and perhaps takes more of a maternal role with Jamie."

They've also managed to effortlessly merge his Christian faith with Samina's Muslim upbringing. "Judaism, Islam and Christianity all share the Old Testament and there is a lot of commonality about the place of Jesus and Mohammed," he explains. "Theologians might say there are also very strong differences but the man in the street wouldn't see it like that. And Samina would say that you cannot be a Muslim without being a Christian, and to be a Muslim you have to simply believe there is one God and that Mohammed is one of the prophets.

"Most supportive of all about our relationship has been my mother. She's a very religious woman and has been very accepting of Samina."

Intriguingly, Prof Dornan's interest in medicine was fired by his rather unusual upbringing. The middle of three children - he has an older and younger sister - he grew up in Bangor in the confines of "the rather non-PC named Cripples Institute", where his accountant father was manager.

"I spent my time playing with children with spina bifida or other conditions and later, as a doctor, I found it fascinating to put a diagnosis on all the different kids I had known.

"The Institute was an amazing place. It wasn't that the children's families had rejected them but rather it was felt their needs were best served in an institutionalised framework. I can only remember one child who was not happy, who said he would rather not have been born."

After studying at Queen's University, Belfast, he spent his houseman's year on the Jubilee labour ward at the City Hospital. "I was immediately taken by the miracle of birth and thousands of babies later I can honestly say that I still feel the same way every time," he says.

The fact that he and Lorna experienced five years of infertility before having their first child only made his experiences more poignant.

And when the first ultrasound devices arrived on the ward, he was even more captivated: "Suddenly instead of communicating with the baby via the mother, you were communicating directly with the baby."

He spent a year doing a foetal medicine residency in Kingston, Canada, before returning to take up a senior lecturing post at Queen's. Fifteen years ago he helped found Northern Ireland Mother and BabyAction, of which he is chairman. Tonight he'll be hosting a dinner at Belfast City Hall for 12 of the province's business leaders, to help boost NIMBA funding.

He's passionate about the charity's work. "When we formed NIMBA the perinatal mortality rate was 30 per 1,000," he says. "Now it's ten per 1,000. For example, one major discovery was that putting washing up liquid-type substance into premature babies lungs allows them to expand easily.

"Our role used to be like that of firemen. Now, given how much we know about the baby before birth, we're more like fire prevention officers."

But he says the biggest improvement in obstetrics is that today 99 out of 100 births are a dignified process. "I saw far too many undignified births in the 70s," he says.

"When I first qualified I worked in units where the Caesarian section rate was 10%. I now work in a unit where it's 30%, and I can tell you without fear of contradiction which is the most dignified.

"There's an awful lot of people who have strong views on Caesarians who have never set foot in a labour ward. If it comes to a time when somebody dictates what that percentage will be then we will turn the clock back - but if we turn the clock back I promise you we will turn the clock back."

Prof Dornan believes in enjoying life. He has few fears "except I don't like the dark much, and I don't like thinking about death much, but that's a fairly universal thing, isn't it?"

He adds: "I think you can be content and ambitious at the same time. I mean that I don't have any blinding ambition but I do like to go to bed on Sunday night looking forward to an exciting week with at least one or two highlights."

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