Documentary tells story of local doctor who worked as a surgeon in Ethiopia

A Cambridge man who spent years in Ethiopia and West Africa performing medical procedures and training doctors is the subject of a new documentary film.

Swedish-American Dr. Tom Coleman and his wife, Elaine, of Cambridge, served at the Ginde Beret Leprosarium and other places in Africa between 1956 and 2004.
Swedish-American Dr. Tom Coleman and his wife, Elaine, of Cambridge, served at the Ginde Beret Leprosarium and other places in Africa between 1956 and 2004.

“The Tom Coleman Story,” directed by Stefan Quinth, will premiere at the Richard G. Hardy Performing Arts Center at Cambridge-Isanti High School at 3 p.m. Saturday, April 22.

Tickets can be purchased at the door for $15 (cash only) and doors open at 2 p.m. The premiere will include a pre-show in tribute to Coleman, who is also celebrating his 95th birthday. The entire program will take approximately 2 1/2 hours. After the program, refreshments will be served in the high school cafeteria.

Coleman, an orthopedic surgeon, lived in Ethiopia for years working for the Baptist General Conference (now known as Converge.) While there, he and his wife, Elaine, a nurse, used their medical skills to provide relief to patients afflicted with leprosy and other diseases.

“He was able to help leprosy patients with their deformities,” said Judy Peterson, Coleman’s daughter.

Coleman previously was interviewed in “Pretty Much 100% Scandinavian,” a series of four films made by Quinth about Scandinavian-American culture. Quinth found Coleman through the Swedish-American Institute while looking for interviewees.

Quinth said Coleman always wanted to talk about his work in Ethiopia for his films. He would show Quinth old photos of the his medical procedures. The material wasn’t right for the Scandinavian series, but Coleman’s story stayed in Quinth’s mind.

“This is a man, we need to do something about his story,” Quinth said he thought of Coleman. “If I don’t do it, no one will.”

Quinth has been working in films and journalism his entire professional life. He sold his first film to television when he was 17.

“I cannot not do movies,” he said.

Most of his work has been in wildlife documentaries and films about various cultures around the world.

Peterson’s parents kept their letters and documented their travels meticulously, which meant Quinth had ample resources to work with putting his film together. Elaine Coleman was an avid photographer.

“She always had two cameras around her neck — black and white and color film,” Peterson said.

The film is “like a time capsule in a way,” Quinth said.

Peterson traveled to Ethiopia with her parents when she was 5 months old. They stayed until she was a junior in high school. She ended up graduating from high school in Cambridge after her father became ill in Ethiopia and they returned to the states. Peterson said her family has strong roots in the Cambridge area. Coleman was born in Springvale. She noted that there are other former Baptist General Conference mission workers living locally as well.

“There’s a lot of children in this town who’ve been adopted from Ethiopia,” Peterson said.

As the date of the documentary’s screening approaches, Peterson said it is hitting her that someone took the time to document her family in such a way.

“It’s a little bit scary,” she said of the documentary on her father, “but it’s exciting.”

Despite the nerves, she agrees with Quinth’s assessment that her parents’ story is remarkable.

“I have always felt that my parents have the kind of story that … somebody should write a book (about),” Peterson said.

For more information on the documentary, visit www.cameraq.com.