The Key to a Man's Health - A Woman

Every physician remembers a few experiences where a patient’s recovery, a new treatment, or a startling insight from research challenges and changes the shape of the medical world. In pediatrics, for example, the amazing ability of many babies to restore themselves to health after devastating illness or injury gives doctors hope for the treatment of every infant. And more generally in medicine, the profound insights of modern science into the genetic origins of disease and the molecular physiology of illness have altered our very notion of longevity, not to say of the value of our work in elevating the quality of our patients’ lives.

For a pediatrician like me in an academic institution where children with grave and chronic conditions are brought for care, there is also the privilege of keeping one’s eyes open, not just in the office and at the bedside but in the elevator and in the waiting room. On my way to my sixth-floor clinic over the course of thirty years, stopping at the floors for the orthopedics, ophthalmology, ear, nose, and throat, and cardiac clinics, I observed holding close to nearly every child, no matter how awkward the gait, crossed the eyes, disfigured the face, or blue the skin, a mother whose touch, gaze, and voice gave comfort and the assurance of protection in that strange place. Certainly there were fathers in the environment, and not a few were engaged with their kids. More often, however, they too were being held by the hand and gave every impression of expecting similar love and consolation even as they, too, were being steered to the right office.

The lessons here, of the power of a mother’s love and how children can capture our hearts from the moment they appear in our lives, were powerful for me, the more so because my responsibility, once I alighted on the sixth floor, was to preside over a clinic where children, and their parents, were referred by other doctors, family service agencies, and courts for evaluations of concerns about child abuse and domestic violence. Here things had gone terribly awry, these loving relationships rent apart by excesses of power, impulse, and rage, with males doing most of the damage. And not just to their loved ones, to themselves as well. Sometimes, their lifelines to partners and offspring nearly completely severed, they became even more dangerous, to the children’s mothers especially. We started a battered women’s advocacy program in this clinic in 1986 when for the first time we appreciated the risks. It was in this setting that I was inspired to write my own book about boys and men, one that has never been written, despite its memorable title: “Bad Men – And How to Avoid Them.” Perhaps it is just as well.

We males are curious creatures. From infancy, we are preoccupied with locating ourselves in the pecking order. Our rough and tumble play, risk-taking, and passionate pursuit of winning the game of life set us up for injury, rejection, and isolation. The poet Anais Nin asked in The Four-Chambered Heart, “Why do men live on shoals?” As we grow up, our struggle to find and define ourselves pitches us in and out of jobs, relationships, and marriages. It’s hard for us to stay the course; far more of those fathers in the elevator on the way to the sixth floor seek divorce, for example, than fathers of children in good health. We men live shorter lives, not least because we don’t take care of ourselves. With reason, it is said that few of us really ever grow up.

Recently, a manuscript came across my desk that provoked a burst of insight and reshaped my doctor’s world in a way that compared to any clinical experience in my 38 year career. A physician-journalist for the CBS television network, Emily Senay, discovered, from her unique perspective as a discerning connoisseur of medical science, as well as daughter, spouse, and mother, that not only do most men remain boys at heart, but that the keys to their health and survival are held by women. In one volume, From Boys to Men, Dr. Senay assembled a compendium of information that turns on its head all previous notions of where the real power resides and who conducts the most important interventions to advance the health of boys and men.

Surely it is time that these women -- mothers, sisters, partners, daughters -- are given the respect they deserve, serious attention to their questions and concerns and focused transmissions of the knowledge they need. In pediatrics, one of the lessons learned from the American experience with malpractice suits, is that when you don’t attend carefully to a mother’s observations and concerns, your patient – and you – may be in for serious trouble.

More generally in medicine, I believe, we can enlarge our perspective, and include our male patients’ life-giving female connections as we address the recent and past medical history and design their programs of treatment,

The aphorism attributed to Victor Hugo, “Nothing is so powerful as an idea whose time as come,” bears mention here. Were we doctors to embrace the women in boys’ and men’s lives as partners in our efforts to prevent and treat the illnesses of men, we would magnify our, and their, salutary power. For it is they, not we, who are the key to a man’s health.


Senay, E. From Boys to Men: A Woman’s Guide to the Health of Husbands, Partners, Sons, Brothers, and Fathers. New York, Chares Scribner’s Sons, 2004

©2009, Eli Newberger

Eli Newberger, M.D., a leading figure in the movement to improve the protection and care of children, is renowned for his ability to bring together good sense and science on the main issues of family life. A pediatrician and author of many influential works on child abuse, he teaches at Harvard Medical School and founded the Child Protection Team and the Family Development Program at Children’s Hospital in Boston. From his research and practice he has derived a philosophy that focuses on the strength and resilience of parent-child relationships, and a practice oriented to compassion and understanding, rather than blame and punishment. He is the author of The Men They Will Become: The Nature and Nurture of Male Charaacter and lives in Brookline, Massachusetts with his wife Carolyn, a developmental and clinical child psychologist." www.elinewberger.com or E-Mail.

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