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Professor Jim Dornan: 'My work as an obstetrician has clearly shown me a very unequal world when it comes to women's health'


Spiritual life: Professor Jim Dornan feels closest to God when with the people he loves
Spiritual life: Professor Jim Dornan feels closest to God when with the people he loves
Alf McCreary

Alf McCreary

Professor Jim Dornan is a former consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist with the Belfast trust (1986 to 2012), Professor of Foetal Medicine at Queen's University Belfast (1995 to 2012) and senior vice-president of the Royal College of Gynaecologists (2004 to 2006). He is currently chair of Health and Life Sciences at Ulster University and head of department with Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland - Medical University of Bahrain.

Q Can you tell us something about yourself?

A I am the only son and the middle child of Clare and Jim Dornan. They provided us with a happy, albeit fairly strict, home and environment in Bangor, which was near the, in retrospect unfortunately named, Cripples Institutes (CI), where dad was the general manager. The institutes have now been renamed Harmoni.

Q What did you learn from your parents?

A Dad was a very comprehensively certified and decorated accountant, who, driven by a Methodist Christian belief structure, used his professional skills in the charitable sector, rather than the commercial one. Mum was an innovative, self-taught occupational therapist in the same environment. They devoted their working lives to doing good and giving Carole, Debbie and myself whatever time and materials they could muster.

Dad loved his involvement with the Methodist laymen, a huge collection of earnest, kind, intelligent, caring men who met at regular intervals, talked, sang and prayed together for the common good. I was often brought along, and their meetings gave me some of the best spiritual times I ever experienced.

Methodists did - and I am sure still do - practise good, honest, no-strings-attached, living Christianity. But where did those laymen go? Did they dissolve around the same time the British Labour Party fatefully withdrew from our country? There could be a link.

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Q Did those experiences have a lasting effect?

A Yes, the experiences I gained from being in and out of the various residential homes and workshops on the CI campus coloured my first two decades and left me with very warm feelings about the work of which people of good intent are capable. The work of the Lord was there for all to see at every turn.

I had the classical happy childhood, had amazingly influential teachers and made lifelong friends through Bangor Grammar School and Queen's University, where I studied medicine.

Having observed my first birth, I fell in love with that world while still a medical student and then regularly remembered the words of one of my consultants, Mr John O'Sullivan: "Jim, change direction every decade, or you'll get stale." I have done just that, concentrating at different times on academic, private, international and political aspects of my chosen speciality.

It was a great time. The NHS was getting on its feet and all those clinically involved, including the doctors and nurses and ancillary staff, thought of the NHS as 'ours'. With the perhaps inevitable changes in emphasis to the role of management, many of us now see it as 'theirs'. Not necessarily a criticism, but factual.

Q What about your personal life?

A Fate blessed me with two fantastic wives. Lorna, a fabulously beautiful nurse, and I were married for 28 years and had, eventually, three great children, Liesa, Jessica and Jamie, who have, so far, provided seven totally perfect grandchildren who are now an intricate part of my spiritual baggage. Lorna tragically died of pancreatic cancer aged 50, gone too soon by far, but had written on her headstone: "A full life, well lived". I hope to write the same on my own.

After her death, I was very fortunate to be introduced to Samina, a beautiful doctor with a Persian/Afghan Muslim background. We have been married 18 years and she is driven to make sure that all on this planet have their rights respected. I think we've both influenced each other and continue to do so.

Q How have your faith views developed?

A My spiritual outlook was heavily influenced earlier (in life) by the Crusaders Bible Class and the Plymouth Brethren. The latter, no doubt with the best of possible intentions, centred around Christianity's value as the ultimate afterlife insurance policy and, as such, it certainly provided me with loads of guilt options.

By the time I entered Queen's to study medicine, in 1967, on reflection, I think I certainly had fully studied the syllabus of the Christian faith but was still confused by the visible general lack of widespread faith in action apparent in Northern Ireland.

Fifty years later, strangely, I do see faith in action in many areas in this country, but not necessarily where one would expect. Read into that what you will. I certainly can't provide a better label for my belief system today than 'spiritual'. I don't want to be labelled otherwise.

My professional work has enabled me to travel far and wide. I've been fortunate to meet people of all religions and of none, and their goodness and kindness is 100% not determined by their faith label. It suits some people to regularly attend the same church every Sunday, and they get huge comfort from that. Great. When I do find myself in any place of worship - a church, a chapel, a temple, a mosque, a living room or a clearing in a forest - I can feel a connection with something greater than myself. Perhaps it's even my inner self? Who cares? It's a good, empowering and calming feeling.

Q What has influenced you most?

A Two influences in adulthood have been very important to me. Firstly, my work internationally as an obstetrician and gynaecologist has clearly shown me a very, very unequal world when it comes to women's health and welfare. And that's not just in Africa and Asia but also exactly where you are reading this right now. Sadly, I must report that my conclusion is not that religion is to blame but that 100% it is the men who mostly control religions and make the rules and have done from the beginning until right now and have a vested interest in keeping the reins of power. It's not a pretty sight.

Q Is there one person who has influenced you particularly?

A The second big influence was Derick Bingham, a highly educated Belfast Bible teacher who sadly passed away almost 10 years ago. He was hugely helpful in helping my wife Lorna in her 18-month final battle. He, along with Fr Paul, the Royal Victoria Hospital chaplain around 1998, were spirituality in action for Lorna, in particular, and for us as a family. Lorna's parents were Plymouth Brethren and she was, therefore, not baptised as a baby. Fr Paul administered baptism into the Christian faith and wrote her name into the cradle roll of St Peter's on the Falls Road. Derick was a simple giant of a man who guided her through the final steps of life's journey.

Q What happened subsequently?

A Ten years later, in 2009, Derick developed leukaemia. He had heard that I, too, had developed the same thing in 2005 and, knowing I was having great results from the treatment provided, he made contact with me. This led to the two of us meeting regularly for the last 12 months of his life. Derick's amazing wife, Margaret, says he enjoyed our chats as much as I did. I was able to share all my anger with the established Churches with him, and their treatment of women, and I relished sharing my reflections on the alternative faiths that I'd encountered along my international journey.

Derick did two things for me. He confirmed that Christ himself was a huge supporter of women and their rights, while informing me that men had airbrushed them out of the story of the early Church for their own selfish reasons. Secondly, he taught me to pray. Amazing. Yes, there is a system that doesn't involve 'crying in the wind'. There will be those reading this asking, "Okay, but praying to whom?" Well, those who want me to describe that, in earthly terms, are going to be disappointed. I have a problem with demands that any deity is worshipped, and I just can't accept that a living being has to be sacrificed before its time in order to display a greater love. I know that may hurt. Let's say that my prayer attempts certainly fit in under the umbrella of exercising mindfulness.

Q What about death? Are you afraid of it?

A I don't want to die, but not because I fear a Dante hellfire-and-damnation scenario, but because I enjoy life far too much.

Q Where do you feel closest to God?

A When I am with those I love and when I am close to the natural world.

Q What is your favourite film and music?

A My favourite film is The Shawshank Redemption. Also, a hymn, which I will explain. I met with Margaret Bingham before Christmas. We reflected and reminisced together. We agreed that the sentiments of a deep south spiritual hymn, sung so perfectly by Mahalia Jackson, which was much loved and gave strength to my dad and to her husband and to us both, brought us all huge strength and belief. It went: "If I can help somebody as I pass along, then my living has not been in vain." This helped them and us to do the work of the Lord. Think about it.

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