Siôr Coleman, who is also a Baptist pastor, thanks “the incredible generosity of the donor family” and “God”, for extending his life
By Dan Wooding, Founder of ASSIST News Service
BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND (ANS – June 27, 2017) – Things looked bleak for a BBC presenter from Birmingham, England, when he was told by his doctor that he had liver cancer, and unless a donor could soon be found, he would face a very uncertain future.
Siôr (pronounced Shore) Coleman, who is also a Baptist pastor, had for many years, presented the early morning breakfast show on BBC WM (West Midlands) in Birmingham, on which I was a regular guest, but then came the hammer blow that he could be facing an untimely death because of his illness.
Now, Siôr, who was born in Bridgnorth, England, of a Scottish father and Welsh mother, has been given a new lease of life, through what he calls “the incredible generosity of the donor family” and “God” and he has now agreed to talk about what happened to turn his life around.
In an interview for my “Front Page Radio” show, I asked him to talk about the dramatic situation he faced, but I first asked him about his unusual name of Siôr, and he explained, “It’s a Welsh name. All the best hymn tunes are Welsh and it’s my mother tongue. It means George, which was my father’s name.”
With that cleared up, he talked about his BBC program.
“It’s a very early morning show, so it’s either for those people who can’t sleep, or for those who’ve only just got back from clubbing and haven’t gone to sleep yet,” he laughed. “Some people think, ‘Oh he plays lots of hymns,’ well yes, there are hymns on it, but what I try and play is music that’s inspiring. And that extends beyond hymns to include David Solley, for example, singing ‘The Uist Tramping Song’ from Northern Scotland, talking about keeping on going whatever the weather; and also from musicals like the fabulous ‘Bui-Doi’ song from ‘Miss Saigon,’ which is about how important it is to bear in mind that the children who were the result of liaisons, shall we say, between the GI’s and the Vietcong women — and their only crime, the song says, was being born.”
Siôr, who was for a time the pastor of Kings Heath Baptist Church, the area of Birmingham where I was raised, and later went into education in the city, is married to Michele. They met at Hull University where both read History degrees before Siôr went on to study Theology at Oxford University.
I told him that I was fascinated the he appeared to be living a double life – as a BBC presenter and also as a Baptist minister. I wondered if it was difficult to mix the two together.
“I think sometimes there’s going to be a tension, because working for the BBC, which is a public service broadcaster, means you’ve got to be impartial,” he said. “But to be honest, the nature of my work is it’s almost what I call ‘the community of radio’ and so a lot of people who listen are an extended family. And in that case the role I have is a sort of a pastoral role. So people will ring me up and tell me about their joys or sometimes tell me about their sadnesses. The two work together ok.”
Life was going along well for the genial Siôr, until in 2004, when he found out that he had acute pancreatitis, with a gallstone blocking the link between the pancreas and the common bile duct.
“I was having some discomfort and I wasn’t sure what it was but there was one night when it was so bad my wife had to get the emergency doctor out to me,” he explained. “Effectively what was happening was the gallbladder, which is a very efficient little machine, was producing gallstones; and because one went into the common bile duct and got stuck where the pancreas feeds into it. My pancreas started dying — I know enough New Testament Greek to know that when the doctor said there was evidence of necrosis that I realized that the cells were actually dying; and the only thing we could do was wait for nature to take its course.
“Fortunately it did and the stone moved away because otherwise, not to be too melodramatic, that would have been curtains for me. So they took me in to remove the gallbladder so that it wouldn’t happen again and they were planning to do it through keyhole surgery. However, they couldn’t do it because my liver was too rigid — it was scarred with extensive Cirrhosis – so much so that the doctor came to see my wife whilst I was still sedated and asked, “Is he a secret drinker?”. She should have said “how would I know?” (laughs). Except for the occasional glass of wine, I wasn’t a drinker. It turned out to be fatty liver disease that had caused the problem with my liver. It’s something that’s fairly common in western society.”
His busy life continued in a relatively normal way until in 2012, when it was discovered that he had liver cancer, and his health began to get worse by the day.
“Basically my liver couldn’t manage the blood flow and was going into decline,” said Siôr. “It was like a car engine that was only running on two cylinders; as a result, the liver couldn’t cope. I had a massive bleed into my stomach and I dropped nearly a litre of blood almost straight away. If the bleeding didn’t stop, then it would have been fatal. I was very fortunate that it stopped long enough for them to do what’s called a TIPPS procedure which is basically a bypass, and only some of the blood went through the liver. Now the disadvantage of that is the liver normally cleans up the blood and takes all the toxins out but I suffered from what’s called encephalopathy because some of the toxins were going up to my brain and caused me to have really weird scrambled dreams which I was quite convinced were true.
“I can remember one memorable occasion when I was quite convinced that I’d crashed my car into the church building. I knew exactly where in the church building I’d done it. And it was only as I came out of this very deep sleep and I looked out the bedroom window and saw the car was intact that I realized it was a dream, yet for quite a long time I was convinced it was true. That was just the byproduct of it but it did mean that there was a problem there and which also meant my memory was being affected. In the end I was getting very tired. And that’s why I had to take early retirement from my work – by now, I was Chaplain and Director of Community in a large secondary school in Birmingham. I was just worn out.”
Eventually, in February of this year, he received the news that, if he was to live much longer, he would need to have a liver transplant.
“It was my wife’s birthday,” he said. We’d been called back to see the consultant four months early and he said, ‘I’m sorry to say this, your liver cancer has returned. We can treat it, but we’re going to have to look seriously at a liver transplant for you now. The medics use interesting terms. They described the cancer treatment as a sort of ‘inflammatory insult to the liver.’ It was quite uncomfortable. But it meant that because I was in hospital longer, they could start the assessment process to see if I would be a suitable candidate for a liver transplant.”
After all kinds of tests, he was told that he was a candidate for the transplant, and then came the wait for a suitable donor to be found. I asked him how he felt during that period.
“It was a mixture of moments of not depression, but certainly holding onto my wife. We cried together, because you do feel extremely vulnerable,” he said. “But at the same time Michele and I are actually quite pragmatic about these things. We worked on the principle that says statistically this will be of benefit to me. If I have a liver transplant it will knock the problem of the cancer on the head. And that’s how I saw it. I knew that if I didn’t have the transplant the likelihood was that the cancer would come back and eventually I will be too ill to have a transplant. So we just recognized that seemed to be the right thing to do. And in the middle of April, I was officially put on the transplant list because they said that I was well enough to have one.”
Siôr decided to keep his BBC listeners in touch with his situation, and even got his producer to interview him about what was going on.
Was he able to pray about the situation?
“I couldn’t do that”, said Siôr. “I could pray for other people, but I can’t pray for myself like that. I don’t see the Almighty as a shopping list. You know the film “Gandhi” when Gandhi asked the vicar in it, ‘Would you pray to your God about this?’, and the response is brilliant. He says, ‘I don’t believe the Almighty plans his day around my dilemmas.’ And for me, I remember hearing an elderly Baptist minister preaching on prayer some years ago. He said, ‘There’s only one prayer that really matters in the New Testament, and it’s so important it’s repeated; it’s in the Lord’s Prayer and prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane. It is only four words long, and it’s simply, ‘Thy will be done.’ And for me, ‘Thy will be done,’ is the prayer that I was praying.”
So now came the wait which usually takes from some six to nine months, but to be prepared he would carry with him a “Go Bag” which was full of essential items like a tooth brush, razor, pajamas, and documents, as he needed to be ready to go to the hospital at a moment’s notice.
Nine days after being put on the transplant list, he got a phone call saying that another recipient was at the hospital, but might not be well enough to have the liver transplant, so he and Michele drove the two-and-half hour drive from their vacation home in Mid Wales to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham, only to be told that the man was now okay to receive the liver transplant. So they returned to their local home and planned to travel back to Wales the next day, and continue their wait.
But then at 7:15 AM the next morning, he received another phone call from the Unit saying they had got another liver, and could he stand by to come to the hospital.
“This is where it actually gets quite emotional for me because, in the end a family had made the extraordinary gift of their deceased member’s liver,” he told me. “I learned that the hospital had received high resolution photos of it but I didn’t know where the person lived and how far the liver had to travel, but it wasn’t going to be in Birmingham until 8:00 in the evening.
“So they had me on ‘nil by mouth’ from 9:00 in the morning and I got a phone call at 4 PM saying, ‘Can you be here in half-an-hour?’ because they had to run through all the checks for me to make sure I was ok. There wasn’t any time really to panic. Lisa, my daughter, is an actress based in London and she wanted to come up to see me. The doctors said that I was probably ‘going down to the theatre’ at midnight, which was fine. Lisa was catching a train. However, once they had done all the checks on me, a porter arrived and said, ‘Right, Mr. Coleman, we’re ready to take you downstairs’. Lisa hadn’t arrived so I phoned her up and talked to her. Although statistically I knew I had a very good chance of surviving, it is a very big operation and there is a risk to it.
“I was there for a time holding hands with my wife and trying to be brave and positive. Then they took me down to the theater and, after being sedated, I soon fell asleep. The next thing I knew was that as I came round, the surgeon was there and he asked, ‘How are you feeling?’. I said, ‘I’m very hungry.’ He then said, ‘No, no, no, you just had a liver transplant. You’re supposed to be telling me that you’re in pain!’. (laughs). But I’d survived. There was an overwhelming sense of gratitude: to the staff, to God , to my family. Everything became very intense.”
It wasn’t long that Siôr began to notice a huge change in his body.
“I’d suddenly become an awful lot sharper and, frankly, Dan, it was as if a light bulb had gone on in my brain. Beforehand, I just saw a liver transplant as a cure for cancer. But what in fact was actually happening was that my new liver was delivering a fantastic transformation to my body. I was back on 4 cylinders; and suddenly I was a lot sharper. I could remember things: names weren’t something I was reaching for blindly – they came straight back to me. It was incredible.”
What was the biggest impact on your life and your ministry from having the transplant?
“It’s difficult to know where to begin on this,” said Siôr. “From a practical point of view I realized how vulnerable we are as human beings and how each moment therefore becomes that much more precious. We have a finite amount of time to use and I’d been given some extra time; and I’m very aware of that. I think, too, that I’m aware of how important family and friends and church are because it’s very easy to take people like that for granted. I’ve also become concerned to support the liver unit practically in fund raising and also in awareness raising. We have an interesting problem in England. I don’t know what it’s like in the States, but in England you have to opt into the donor system and even if you sign something your relatives can refuse it.”
He says he wants to campaign on behalf of people needing liver transplants and encouraging people to donate their organs to save lives like his own. “I’ve already been in touch with a couple of Members of Parliament and they are happy to discuss this with me further,” said Siôr.
“But, I think the other big issue for me is recognizing that we have the opportunity to do so many good things and it’s a question of the old Latin phrase “Carpe Diem” (Seize the day), because what I’ve got is the opportunity now, in terms of my ministry, to do things that hopefully will make a difference.
“I’m not the world’s greatest Baptist minister, I know that. Just ask my wife she’ll confirm that! But I am aware that because of the incredible generosity of the donor family I got the chance to make a difference. It’s an indebtedness, I suppose, in memory of the organ donor and to the hospital and, indeed, to the Almighty that my life should be used as best it can be. I’m going to make mistakes and get things wrong of course, but my life has become a little bit more sharply focused shall we say.”
Note from Dan Wooding: It was back in 1960, that my own father, the Rev. Alfred Wooding, has his life saved from bowel cancer in the very same Queen Elizabeth Hospital, and lived for a further 30 years.
If you would like to write to Siôr Coleman, please e-mail him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
To hear the actual broadcast, just go to http://frontpageradio.net/frontpageradiofiles/SiorColemanFPR20170625Mono.mp3
Note: I’d like to thank Robin Frost for transcribing this interview.
Photo captions: 1) Michele and Lisa with Siôr. 2) Siôr interviewing (right) the Bishop of Birmingham, the Rt. Revd. David Urquhart and the Archbishop of Canterbury, His Grace Justin Welby. 3) Siôr Interviewing Birmingham based Holocaust Survivor, Anne Shearer MBE. 4) Siôr introduces BBC WM colleague, Pete Morgan, at the Annual BBC WM Carol Concert at Birmingham St Philip’s Cathedral. 5) Dan Wooding hosting his “Front Page Radio” show.
About the writer: Dan Wooding, 76, is an award-winning journalist who was born in Nigeria of British missionary parents, Alfred and Anne Wooding from Liverpool, now living in Southern California with his wife Norma, to whom he has been married for 54 years. They have two sons, Andrew and Peter, and six grandchildren who all live in the UK. He has a radio show and TV shows all based in Southern California.
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