Thursday, June 6, 2019

Book Nook: The Doctor Broad - A Mafia Love Story

There are people who say that Barbara Roberts, MD caused the downfall of the New England Mafia. She did this, not by killing someone, or sending someone to jail, but by keeping someone alive, and out of prison, for about a year too long. During this time, Dr. Roberts navigated life in two separate worlds. In the "straight" world, she was a single mother of three fighting for custody of her kids, the first woman to practice adult cardiology in Rhode Island, and an active feminist. In the other world she was the physician whose testimony prevented Raymond L. S. Patriarca, the head of the New England Mafia, from having to go to trial, and the secret lover of the alleged #3 man in the New England Mafia, Louis "Baby Shanks" Manocchio.

This sounds like a Hollywood hit, but it’s Dr. Roberts’ real life, and the subject of her forthcoming memoir, The Doctor Broad: A Mafia Love Story

I had a chance to interview her to learn more.

Why did you decide to write this book?
It was Sunday, April 5, 1981. I was making rounds on my patients at the Miriam Hospital in Providence, Rhode Island, where I was a cardiologist on staff. That day, the Providence Journal Sunday Magazine published a cover story on me, entitled, Who Is the Real Dr. Roberts? The Journal’s interest in me stemmed from the fact that for the previous several months I had been taking care of the head of the New England Mafia, Raymond L. S. Patriarca. It was my testimony that he was too sick to stand that had stymied police and prosecutors in their attempts to link him to two murders. Needless to say, this had not endeared me to the police, the FBI, state and federal prosecutors or the Providence Journal newspaper.
That morning, as I approached the nurse’s station on the fourth floor where the Cardiac Unit was I overheard two of the nurses discussing me.  The first queried her friend: “Did you read the article about Dr. Roberts in the paper this morning?” “Nah,” her colleague replied, “I’m gonna wait for the movie.” It occurred to me for the first time that my story was, in many ways, stranger than fiction. At that moment I began to think about writing my life story, but it would be many years before I put pen to paper.
I also wrote this book because so much has changed for women since the 1970’s. Many young women don’t know about the struggles of their mothers to win the right to abortion (now under relentless attack), to enter professions previously closed to them like medicine and law, and even to serve in the Armed Services.
Writing The Doctor Broad: A Mafia Love Story was cathartic. It helped me work through the traumas of growing up in an alcoholic family, going through a divorce and two custody battles, having my professional reputation impugned, being arrested on a trumped-up felony charge, seeing my daughter experience a mental breakdown, and having a loved one imprisoned. I hope that reading this book will help readers come to terms with their own traumas and survive their own tragedies. And of course, I hope they will be entertained!
What was it like to live in two very different worlds?
It was like walking a tight-rope over an abyss. During the years when I was Raymond’s doctor, and the lover of the alleged #3 man in the New England Mafia, my life ran on two parallel by very different tracks. My life ran on two parallel but very separate tracks; I inhabited two very different worlds. In one, I was a single mother and busy physician, a teacher, a mentor, a stalwart of the local Planned Parenthood, an attendee at my children’s theater and sports performances, and a sailboat racer. In that world, I was a respected physician, if somewhat controversial.
In my other world, I was the secret lover of an alleged organized crime figure, and the physician whose testimony was preventing the head of the New England Mafia from having to go to trial and, almost certainly, to prison. In that world, I was looked up to and admired for my defense of Raymond; to many of the inhabitants of Federal Hill, the Italian neighborhood in Providence I was a folk-heroine.
The “straight” world was where I spent most of my time. It was a world whose rules I knew without having to be told. The Federal Hill world was one of secrets, of mobsters and FBI agents, a world carrying with it the possibility of sudden violence, of arrests, of prison terms—a world whose rules I groped to understand.
In effect, I was suspended over the abyss separating these two worlds, in danger at any moment of losing my footing and being annihilated. 
How did you juggle parenting and your career?
There was no one single strategy I used when it came to child-care. Sometimes I took my children to a day-care center, at other times I had a live-in baby-sitter, and I also had neighbors who doubled as baby-sitters. I spaced my three pregnancies, with 4 years between my oldest and middle child, and 7 years between my middle child and my youngest. When I was able to afford it, I hired someone to help with the house-cleaning, but early on, while still a medical student and resident, all of the house cleaning chores fell to me. My then husband refused to pitch in and it was one of the things that led to our divorce.
No matter how busy I was, I tried to cook dinner every night for my children. As they got older, I took them on vacations to Europe and the Caribbean. I found that cruises were an excellent way to vacation with children.
I’m fortunate to come from a large family – I am the oldest of ten children, and having siblings and parents who could pitch in was a relief. Unfortunately, I lived over one hundred miles away from where most of them lived so it wasn’t something that happened on a regular basis, but in a pinch I knew I could rely on them.

What progress have women made since you first entered medical school and how can women continue to advocate for greater representation in the medical field.
When I started medical school in 1964 women made up at most 10% of medical school classes. Today, women are in the majority numbering about 53% of students in medical school in the US. There are still barriers to women however. Women cluster in the lower rungs of academia in medical schools, and they remain a small percentage of those in certain higher-paid specialties, like orthopedic surgery, neurosurgery, and cardiovascular disease. Academic medicine in particular remains an “old boys club.”
Women physicians with families still shoulder most of the burden of caring for the children and the home. This probably contributes to the high rate of burn-out among female physicians. A better system of child care, perhaps centered around hospitals would be of benefit for young doctors in training.
Once established in their careers, women physicians would do well to become involved in local and national medical societies, like the American Medical Women’s Association that advocate for women doctors. They also should keep up-to-date on what is going on politically with respect to laws regulating the practice of medicine.
I have never regretted going into medicine. If you like science, and you enjoy interacting with people on a very intimate level, medicine can still provide a lifetime of satisfaction, joy and financial stability.

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