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Soldier Gary Coleman, from Hampshire, was ‘thrilled’ to become a dad
He was diagnosed with cancer in February 2011, which spread to his brainWife Joanne asked to be induced so her husband could spend precious moments with his newborn daughter
Tragically, seven days after baby Amba’s birth, the doting father died
This is the poignant moment dying soldier Gary Coleman, 34, cradled his newborn baby girl – but just seven days later he passed away.
Mr Coleman, a Lance Corporal with the Royal Engineers, was diagnosed with cancer in 2011 which slowly spread to his brain.
But with just days to live his wife Joanne, a nurse, told how doctors brought on baby Amba’s birth early – so her husband could hold his miracle daughter in his arms.
The couple had previously been told that due to intense chemotherapy, Mr Coleman, who was diagnosed with cancer of the food gullet in Februay 2011, would be infertile.
Mr Coleman, knowing he was dying, went out and bought birthday cards for Amba for her first, 13th, 16th and 18th birthdays.
The brave soldier, who had served with the army in Iraq, Kosovo and Afghanistan, also chose clothes for his little girl.
Cradling baby Amba, now five months, Mrs Coleman, 34, said: ‘Gary was so happy to be a dad and she is so much like him.
‘She was the child he thought he’d never have and his dying wish was to hold his baby in his arms.
‘Seeing him hold Amba for the first time was such an emotional moment. Knowing he died a dad – but gave me little Amba – has given me the strength to carry on after his death.’
Mr Coleman – who had served in the army since the age of 16 and was given a full military funeral – was a super-fit man when they met both aged 30.
‘We met at a party and hit it off straightaway,’ said Mrs Coleman. ‘Gary had bright blue eyes and a wonderful smile. He was funny, sarcastic, with a wicked sense of humour, stubborn, quick-tempered, loyal, extremely loving – and within weeks we were a couple.’
Within nine months, Mrs Coleman had moved from her home in Yorkshire to live with her partner in Hampshire, whose base was at Perhamdown, Tidworth in Wiltshire.
And in December 2010, with Mr Coleman donning full military uniform, the couple wed.
But just months later, the dedicated soldier began having difficulty swallowing his food.
Doctors initially put his symptoms down to indigestion – however, a month later, Mr Coleman couldn’t eat at all and was referred to hospital for tests.
‘Gary was so fit and tough,’ said Mrs Coleman. ‘After all, he’d survived being in all these war zones and we just thought his eating problems would be something minor.
‘So we were absolutely devastated when the doctor broke the news a biopsy revealed Gary had a tumour.
‘It was oesophageal cancer, blocking the food passage to his stomach. He would need chemotherapy to shrink it followed by surgery.’
And the news got even worse as the couple were told the intense treatment would make Mr Coleman infertile.
‘We were planning on having children,’ said his wife. ‘We asked the consultant about freezing Gary’s sperm.’
However, doctors, who were concerned about the cancer spreading, said there wasn’t enough time.
‘Gary and I were both so upset,’ she said. ‘But within seven days he was having the chemo we hoped would save his life.’
After 12 weeks of gruelling therapy – causing Mr Coleman to lose all his hair – the pair were relieved when doctors said the tumour had shrunk. Mr Coleman had an operation to remove the remaining parts and he was finally given the all-clear.
Believing he was infertile, Mr Coleman and and his wife began looking into adoption.
And in July 2012, with Mr Coleman feeling much better, the couple went on a late honeymoon to Portugal.
‘We were both over the moon when we got home and I discovered I was pregnant,’ said Mrs Coleman. ‘We couldn’t believe it. Gary was simply thrilled. After everything we’d been through it just seemed a miracle.’
But their happiness was short lived when, within days, Mr Coleman began experiencing severe headaches. Scans revealed the cancer had spread to his brain.
‘It was the worse possible diagnosis because we knew it was terminal. Although Gary underwent brain surgery to remove the tumours and had radiotherapy, the cancer then spread to his skin,’ said Mrs Coleman.
‘Eventually he had to be intravenously fed via a vein. It was heartbreaking because we both knew it was only a matter of time.’
Only one thing kept Mr Coleman going – and that was the thought he was going to be a dad.
‘It seemed ironic that as Gary was deteriorating his baby was growing bigger and stronger,’ said Mrs Coleman. ‘But although the pregnancy gave both of us something positive to focus on, it was our biggest fear that he wouldn’t live long enough to see his child.’
Because of this, Mrs Coleman underwent a special 3D scan to determine the sex of their unborn baby.
‘I’d been told at my routine 20-week scan that I was probably having a girl,’ she said. ‘But we wanted to be sure so we could decide together on a definite name, Gary could help buy clothes and plan the nursery with me.
‘We chose the name Amba because it means Precious in old English and she was so precious to both of us. Gary chose lots of the clothes – little dresses and pink tops.
‘Knowing he would not see Amba’s first birthday – or her grow up – he chose birthday cards for her first, 13th, 16th and 18th birthdays.’
Tragically, Mr Coleman only managed to write in Amba’s first birthday card because as Joanne’s due date – the 7th April – approached, he took a turn for the worst.
‘The thought that Gary could die before I gave birth was unbearable,’ said Mrs Coleman. ‘He was deteriorating so fast. I knew he was desperately hanging on until I had Amba but we just didn’t know how long he had left.
‘His dying wish was to be at home for a few final days as a ‘normal’ new dad with Amba and I was determined he would have that. The doctors and nurses were fantastic and agreed to induce me.’
On April 2, and with the support of Mr Coleman’s sister, Kelly, Mrs Coleman went into hospital where doctors induced her labour.
‘Sadly Gary was too ill to come with me and stayed at home. But he texted all night’, she said.
In the early hours of April 3, baby Amba, weighing a healthy 7Ib 3oz, was welcomed into the world.
‘She looked like a mixture of Gary and I and immediately I adored her. I couldn’t wait to get home to show him his little girl,’ she said.
‘Putting Amba in Gary’s arms was the most poignant moment ever and I will always treasure the memories. At last – for a few days at least – we were the little family we’d longed to be.
‘It also meant I had photos to show Amba when she is older how proud her daddy was of her.’
Mrs Coleman believes that, with his wish of dying a dad fulfilled, her husband was able to let go peacefully.
‘The medical staff did everything they could, but Gary had suffered so much over the last few months. He’d been forced to give up everything he loved – cooking, golf, his job. By now, he could barely speak, had to be fed by a machine and was confined to bed,’ she said.
‘A few days later Gary said he’d had enough and no longer wanted to be fed by a machine. I believe he knew Amba was here safely and he was leaving a part of him behind. Now, he could let go.’
Two days later, Mr Coleman died peacefully at home, with his parents and wife at his side.
‘Amba was in her cot the next room,’ said Mrs Coleman. ‘Afterwards I gave her a kiss – holding her close gave me so much comfort.
‘I will always keep Gary’s memory alive for her – the photos of him as a new dad, all the medals he earned for his tours – most recently he was awarded one for long service and good conduct.’
Mr Coleman’s funeral was held on HMS Excellent naval base at Whale Island, Portsmouth. The couple had moved there to be closer to his family after his diagnosis.
‘He had a full military funeral and his troops who are out in Afghan sent flowers and cards,’ said Mrs Coleman. ‘They even held a service for him in Afghan at the same time as his funeral here.’
She said life since her husband’s death has been hard.
‘Silly things make me cry such as seeing one toothbrush in the bathroom,’ she said. ‘And although I’ve had so much support from friends, family and the army, who continually come round to check how I am, I am heartbroken. All my thoughts come back to Gary – I think ‘Gary should be watching this or Gary would love that’.
‘But in my darkest moments, I feel lucky. Lucky that Amba had such a wonderful dad and lucky Gary knew how it felt to be a dad before he died – even if it was for just seven days.’
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