DR BENJAMIN SPOCK, at 90, has plunged himself into one of the biggest controversies of his long life. He’s been involved in controversies before, including the anti-Vietnam War protests and anti-nuclear protests. None were as hot as his latest: milk.
Dr Spock, the childcare author, not the man from Star Trek, appeared on US television advising parents not to give their children milk. In doing so, he went against when he had been saying in his books for the past more than 50 years.
That’s about as controversial as the Pope retracting the Bible. Because Dr Spock’s books are revered as the bible of childcare.
“I received more phone calls about milk than about any other issue that I got involved in,” Dr Spock says. As such, he did not want to speak more on the subject.
This change of mind – and change of heart – came in 1991, when he himself stopped taking milk and dairy products. Dr Spock was, at the time, 88 years old and suffering from a long list of illnesses.
He had a nerve disorder which left him confined to a wheelchair, unable to walk. His doctor said his condition was irreversible and he would never walk again.
He had severe bronchitis and was given nine months of antibiotics. On four occasions, his intestines were blocked. The first three times, he needed surgery to clear the blockage. He also had prostate trouble, and was grossly overweight.
“Ben was dying,” says his wife, Mary. “He didn’t know it then, but I did.” The couple discovered, however, that even at that age and in that state of illness, he was not too old to recover.
The road to recovery began in mid-1991, when Dr Spock “slipped into macrobiotics”. A friend who was being treated for cancer with macrobiotics had suggested that he see a macrobiotic counselor.
Dr Spock recalls: “Mary said, ‘Sure.’ And three months later, an appointment was arranged. “I said, ‘Mary, what have you got me involved in now?’
“We didn’t know what macrobiotics was. I thought it had something to do with massage. Mary thought it had to do with acupuncture.
“When I met the counselor, he said, ‘Your finger tips are very red. What did you drink?’ It was a hot summer day and I told him I had three large glasses of ice-tea.
“I set myself into a trap when I said that. Because he said there were three ‘bad things’ that I shouldn’t have done – I shouldn’t have drank so much, I shouldn’t have taken so much caffeine, and I shouldn’t have taken ice-water.
“I felt abashed.”
The counselor, Marc van Cauwenburghe (who’s based in New York), was also qualified as a medical doctor. So Dr Spock was receptive to what he had to say. If it was someone else, he admits, he probably would not have listened.
“Within two weeks,” Mary reports, “all his symptoms disappeared – his prostrate, his intestines, his lungs, his nerves. Within six weeks, he could climb the stairs. And he lost 50 pounds.”
“She made it sound as if I was rolly-polly,” Dr Spock chips in.
His sense of humor, no doubt, contributes to his recovery. When someone at the workshop asked if he swam in a chlorinated pool, Dr Spock replies, “Chlorinated and urinated.”
He swims daily. He walks, he travels. And he has not had another bronchitis attack since.
Dr Spock used to attribute his good health to the “strong genes which my mother gave me”. He does have a strong constitution and was quite athletic in his youth. He even won an Olympic gold for rowing back in the 1920s.
He and his wife, however, are now convinced that macrobiotics – the food as well as the exercises, massage and home cares – saved his life.
The couple’s presentation on How Dr Spock got to be 90, therefore, consisted of a demonstration of the routines they go through each day. Of course, his schedule is not for everyone to follow. What they do, Mary emphasizes, is not as important as how they do it – regularly and consistently.
Dr Spock eats three macrobiotic meals a day. And he eats a lot. At the summer conference, I saw him one morning with two servings of breakfast.
He remarks about his initial “aversion” to macrobiotic food: “For an American, one of the most difficult things about macrobiotics is eating vegetables for breakfast.”
What makes him stick to the diet in spite of the initial aversion?
“Actually it’s not that bad,” he admits. “I love to exaggerate.”
He meditates, does yoga and scrubs his entire body with a hot towel twice a day. He swims and walks daily.
He gets half an hour of shiatsu massage daily, part of it with him lying on the floor and Mary literally walking all over him. The last time he had an intestinal blockage, a belly massage saved him from the surgeon’s knife yet again.
“With so many things going on, I have no time left to work,” he grumbles. But Mary points out: “In the past, he had no energy. He would just go to the desk and nod off.”
Three times a week, he soaks his feet in hot water.
And when required, he gets a moxibustion treatment, a traditional Chinese remedy using a herb called moxa. The herb is rolled into a sort of “cigar”. It is then lit and heat is applied just above the skin along the meridians, or energy channels. Mary hates the smell, but puts up with it.
Once a week, the couple participates in a macrobiotic support group meeting which lasts about two hours. They find the sessions very useful, especially for addressing emotional issues like resistance to macrobiotics.
It’s hard to measure the contribution of group support, Dr Spock notes. It is hard to say whether diet, exercise or group support plays a bigger role.
But he points out that in Dr Dean Ornish’s book, Program for Reversing Heart Disease, when patients were asked which factor was the most important, the majority said group support.
Dr Spock strongly recommends everyone practicing macrobiotics to try and organize support groups in their own neighborhoods.
Don’t worry about poor response, he assures. He simply announced, “If you are doing macrobiotics and want a support group, please come. And they came out of the walls,” he says.
Don’t worry about having to lead a group either. He suggests having everyone take turns to lead.
Two other factors contribute to Dr Spock’s recovery.
One, he faithfully follows Michio Kushi advice to “See something beautiful everyday. And everyday sing a happy song.”
Probably the most important factor, however, is not something incorporated into his daily schedule. But it stays with him every minute of the day, every day of the year.
It is the tremendous amount of love and care which Mary showers on him. She cares for him the way a mother cares for her baby.
The world’s most famous baby doctor evidently enjoys that.