by Andrea Hartley
It was an honor to speak with Domeena Renshaw, M.D., a woman who is a true pioneer of the woman’s rights movement. Born in a day when women were supposed to “stay at home”, Renshaw decided that she was going to become a psychiatrist. The 83 year old doctor recalls, “My parents threatened to disinherit me. They said they would never speak to me again and declared that I would be responsible for their early deaths from stroke.” A heavy guilt trip to lay on anyone. But Renshaw was used to the clamor and declared that it would pass, and it did. “I came from a feisty family,” she said, and that chutzpah was part of her nature too. She was motivated to become a psychiatrist when she and her father saw an auto accident in South Africa, where they were living. The man involved was convinced that his leg was broken. “ I could see that it was not broken because he was able to move it,” she said. So I began talking to him, assuring him that he was fine and trying to convince him that he could walk. After a while the man sat up, stood and then walked away from the scene of the accident.”
She was fascinated by this and decided that she wanted to learn more about how the mind works, so despite her parents objections, she had saved enough money to begin taking classes at the University of Cape Town Medical school, eleven years later.
As a physician, she started work as a general practitioner treating Zulus, at a mission hospital in Marion Hill South Africa. “I would still be there,” she declared, “If I hadn’t married and moved to America.” She said that the need was great there. In a matter-of-fact tone she said, “When you see the need, you do what you need to do to meet it, if you can. That’s why I became a doctor. Not for the money, but to help those who needed help.” She treated people for snakebites, tuberculosis, parasites and she delivered babies.
After moving to America she obtained a position in the psychiatry department at Loyola Medical School, near Chicago. The psychiatry department was located between the Gynecology and Urology departments, and this geographical location was responsible for the beginning of a program that would eventually heal thousands of people.
Renshaw saw that her fellow physicians knew of no way to treat men who had problems with impotency or women who had problems with achieving orgasm; so once again, she saw the need and met it. “I realized if I didn’t teach the doctors, no one would; so I studied Master’s and Johnson’s newly published sex therapy techniques and adapted them for use in our program at Loyola. Over the years, I have enlarged and refined the program to make it as meaningful as possible for couples who need help. As incredible as it may seem today, she says that Masters and Johnson actually risked their careers to study sexuality in the 1960’s.
She trained thousands of medical professionals from all over the world and then went on shows like Geraldo and Donahue to let people know that “Sexual problems are as treatable as other physical, emotional and behavioral problems.” PBS has also filmed her in a segment of a 13-part series on human behavior. Her program is still in operating, over thirty two years later; but Renshaw didn’t stop there. Again, looking to meet a need, she wondered what kind of help that people, not located near Loyola, could get. “A urologist sees 3 times as many patients as a psychiatrist. They are so busy, they cannot take the time, ” Renshaw said. “So if a man comes in and says that he cannot get an erection, he is given a pat on the back and sent home.” She decided to write a book, so people could help themselves at home. “It wasn’t easy, I was still working at the time and I had to write it in my spare time.” she said.
The program never used sex surrogates and always consisted of techniques for the couples to practice at home. This therapy can also help the couple who has just lost interest in sex because of the many commitments with jobs and raising a family.
Renshaw, who is now retired says that she is lucky to be in good health. She seems to yearn for another challenge. Who knows what need she will discover and set out to meet next!
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