He also lives by the concept that life is not about simply making money, so he uses his own resources to bring about change.
“I think I’ve always had that type of attitude,” Coleman said. “(Growing up) it was always helping somebody in some nonfinancial way, and that’s what I do now with my hands, through surgery and through teaching.”
Coleman was born in Virginia, but moved with his family at the age of 6 to Ohio.
“I grew up then in Ohio, but I never really adapted well to Ohio. I just always really wanted to come back South,” he said.
After graduating from high school, he joined the U.S. Army and served as a Green Beret.
“One of the things that I did there was I went through their medical training portion, which was about a year long, and I just fell in love with medicine, and particularly surgery,” Coleman said.
After his time in the Army, he went to college and then medical school with the goal of becoming a surgeon. He took his first trip to volunteer surgical services during his fourth year of surgical residency.
He spent three months in Bangladesh.
That was 1981.
“It was a wonderful experience for me … it was a wonderful growing experience for me,” he said. Since then Coleman has traveled to more than 12 countries to volunteer surgical services and training.
In 1983, he moved with his wife and two children to Cleveland to join a practice that needed a partner.
“I came for a visit and fell in love with it,” he said.
Coleman was a part of a local surgical practice from 1983 to 2003.
“During my regular practice I would usually go somewhere once or twice a year … to work in the hospital primarily doing surgery and teaching surgery. It became more and more important to me,” he said.
He said his wife and later his children would often join him on these medical trips.
“Twice we’ve all gone to Africa and worked for a month or so,” he said.
In the late 1980s, some friends asked him to look into providing surgical services in Honduras.
Coleman agreed to go and see what he could do. During the visit, he also visited a local orphanage.
“We ended up adopting three of the children. They were triplets,” he said. “Since that point we have had a real attachment to Honduras and that area.”
He has gone back to work in that hospital several times. The orphanage, however, no longer exists.
On his first few trips to the country, he relied on translators throughout his trip. He later decided to learn the language so he could communicate on his own.
He said one of the most challenging aspects was getting over his fear of making a mistake, such as using the wrong tense. He said after he overcame this fear it was easy to speak Spanish and communicate with people.
Through his work in Honduras, he has also been a part of bringing children to the States for needed surgeries.
“Going down there is almost my second home because I’ve gotten to know so many people down there,” he said. “I now have patients that I operated on 20 years ago and they come and see me.”
The children they adopted have also been able to go back with him on subsequent trips.
“It has been a good experience for them, I think, to see,” Coleman said. “Hopefully they appreciate how their life is different than what it could have been.”
The triplets are now 27 years old. (His older children are in their 30s.)
Locally, he also worked to meet the medical needs of the poor by establishing the Good Samaritan Clinic.
As doing volunteer medical work for those in need overseas became increasingly important to him, he tried to limit his stateside practice to give him more time to travel.
“I learned that it’s easier to build your practice then it is to slow it down,” Coleman said.
He said he was finally able to retire in 2003.
Now he makes trips just about every month and stays for a week.
“I work in Honduras, primarily,” he said.
He said Afghanistan was one of the most challenging places to work because of the conditions.
His first trip to the country was in 2003, before he retired.
“Where we stayed was in a more remote area … one of the times was in the wintertime, extremely cold — the operating room had no heat,” he said.
Coleman said many of the doctors had been killed in the war or had moved to Pakistan.
“For six to eight years there was this backlog of medical problems,” he said.
He also provided some surgical training to the doctors there during the trips. Safety was also a concern during these trips.
Yet, Afghanistan was also one of the most rewarding places to go.
“There are such interesting surgical problems, unique problems where you have to be able to think and improvise to solve the problem, so as a surgeon, as [someone with] a problem-solver mentality, that was just exciting,” Coleman said.
Coleman had experienced similar medical challenges previously in trips to Honduras.
An emotionally difficult trip for Coleman was when he went to China.
“Though they were in this region … it was 30 to 40 years behind time in how they did things, in technology, and yet they felt, they’d been told,” they were far more advanced, he said.
The Chinese he encountered had been taught they had “‘the premiere surgical knowledge of anyone in the world.’ You were there to teach but they approached as though they were the ones who knew everything. So, it was just a difficult way to have to deal with that,” Coleman said.
Coleman has felt well accepted in most of the places he has gone. The retired surgeon has traveled with many different organizations in his travels, not just one specific program.
He said the cases that stand out are the ones where he really felt that he made a difference in someone’s life. His next trip is planned for February in Honduras.
Locally, his desire to better his environment has lately taken shape as his project to revitalize the old Hardwick Mill. Planning new uses for the space has given him a creative outlet.
Coleman and his wife, Shelley, have been married for 39 years. He said he enjoys spending time with his children and grandchildren.