A Tale of Two
words by Maryann Brinley / photographs by Pete Byron
ost women are better than men at
multi-tasking — yes, even the research data says it’s true — but Vanita Kamath Braver, MD, RWJMS ‘91, takes this art to an extraordinary level.
A child and adolescent psychiatrist, a medical director at Bonnie Brae Educational Center, on staff at Morristown Memorial Hospital, author of nine illustrated children’s books with five more due out in the next two years, speaker, magazine columnist, wife and mother of three middle-school-age daughters, Braver juggles the pieces of her busy life so seamlessly that no one would suspect her staggering to-do list.
“The reality of my day is that I have a lot to do in a little bit of time.” One thing she has learned over the years is to focus on what she has accomplished each day and not dwell on what didn’t get done. Braver believes that the medical profession is the perfect vehicle for her life’s journey. Choosing to practice psychiatry part-time in a residential treatment facility for teenage boys also leaves room for family and flexibility. Though her patients can be difficult, they live right at the Liberty Corner facility, so rescheduling appointments, even at the last minute, is not usually a problem. Happy that she isn’t in private practice right now, she finds herself daily at Bonnie Brae for several hours and then at home working on book-related projects. At the moment, she’s arranging her next author’s tour, which will take her on quick trips to cities for book signings and speaking engagements. Medicine and publishing have allowed her a balance not always possible in other professions. She has friends in other fields, lawyers for instance, who were not able to continue working after the birth of their second children because of time and financial constraints. Braver believes, “As a working mother, I think I’m able to set a good example for my girls.”
Braver, in fact, is the type of mom who is there almost every weekday morning to send her daughters off to school and then home when they get off the school bus. She chuckles about being the family chauffeur for after-school activities as well. Her husband, Joel Braver, same RWJMS class of ’91, is Director of Radiation Oncology at Somerset Medical Center and the kids’ soccer coach, but “the responsibility and organizing still falls mainly on women. Back when I had three kids under age 3, I remember wondering, ‘Good God, how am I going to survive this?’ I’m lucky to have the most incredibly supportive, wonderful husband,” she says.
“My kids,” she laughs — Samantha is 11 while her twins, Alyssa and India are 13 — “are almost more proud of my being a writer than a physician. Another mother called to arrange a play date and said, ‘I understand that you write children’s books.’ The kids hadn’t even told her I was a physician.”
Perhaps her children recognize one of their mom’s real passions: writing. Proud of her literary accomplishments, Braver points out that there are no other child psychiatrists who write children’s books. “I love what I do and always wanted to be involved with writing.” Her Asian-Indian parents weren’t thrilled with the idea of her being a writer so she chose medicine. “Luckily, I was also interested in science and these two careers aren’t mutually exclusive. My parents wanted me to be practical and able to make a living so I’ve been blessed in that I’m able to incorporate being a child analyst and an author. This is absolutely what I’ve always wanted to do and when you do something you love, it becomes effortless”— a fact that might help explain why Braver never seems overwhelmed.
With fewer than 7,500 child psychiatrists in the U.S. and more than 15 million children in need of one, she believes that she has also landed in her dream medical specialty. “I keep telling a research intern at Bonnie Brae how much I love the field of child psychiatry. Troubled kids can get turned around and back to being functional. They really can.”
After her medical training at RWJMS — which she deems “excellent” — she was accepted into a top residency program in the country for psychiatry: Cornell’s New York - Presbyterian Hospital at the Payne Whitney Clinic (now known as Cornell Columbia Weill). General psychiatry is ordinarily four years followed by two years of child and adolescent training but she was able to finish in five. “It was a ton of work.” In her practice now, Braver always looks at children from a developmental perspective — “They are not ever a label.” After a bio-psycho-social assessment, her treatment plans are based on all the factors, especially each child’s strengths and weaknesses.
A question currently being debated in medical circles is: should kids with mental health problems be routinely medicated? Some research studies say yes. Others suggest caution. For Braver, all medication consent decisions are heavily regulated by outside agencies like the New Jersey Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS) but she says, “I’m very conservative. However, the reality is that getting children on the right combination of medicines is as much of an art as it is science and certainly an important part of treatment.” It can also be life-saving. Braver describes a boy who had fought being medicated when he was admitted. Yet he had been psychotic. In June, he stopped by to thank his doctor upon graduation from the program as he headed off to a community college. “I wouldn’t be here without Bonnie Brae or the medication,” he admitted.
“There is something about living long enough that humbles all of us,” Braver says. “We have to feel compassion for what anyone goes through. It is a privilege for me to take care of these kids.”
This awesome respect is apparent in her book series, “Teach Your Children Well,” now being published by Star Bright Books. Designed for ages 4 to 8, the books feature a little girl, Madison, who is confronted with dilemmas that help shape her character. “The stories depict the importance of giving, forgiving, having gratitude for everyday things, and respecting differences.” In Madison and the Two-Wheeler, the heroine learns that any goal is achievable with determination and in Madison’s Patriotic Project, she must deal with rejection. It doesn’t matter whether you win or lose if you try your best, according to this psychiatrist. (For more information, visit www.drvanitabraver.com.)
Featured in both Parents and Child magazines, Braver’s books are illustrated by Carl DelRocco and were first field-tested in her daughters’ classrooms. Braver would read them aloud over and over again. Meanwhile, each story ends with Madison snuggling in bed with one of four stuffed animals: Wisdom, the owl, Honesty, the bear, Courage, the lion and Hope, the bluebird. That’s when “lessons are reinforced. Essentially, the toys are all aspects of Madison herself,” Braver explains. Having these characters come to life, just as Madison is falling asleep and in a dreamlike state, is what psychiatrists call hypnagogic phenomena. At those points, “If we can tap into our own strengths, then we can get ourselves through any dilemma.”
The animals “never talk back, except at the end in faint, little whispers that are really her conscience.” Look for a line of stuffed animals based on Madison’s literary pals in the future, says this entrepreneurial doctor. She also lectures frequently and delivers keynote presentations on why children are our greatest resource.
A story-teller with the knack for creating happy endings, Braver recalls her first days at RWJMS and her fantasy: “I thought I would meet the man I was going to marry at medical school.” On the last day of orientation at a happy hour arranged by the school, she looked across the crowded room and spotted him. “My heart stopped,” she says laughing about her tale of true romance, “literally. I said to my friend Ellen, who is a radiologist in Delaware now, that’s him. He’s the guy.” Joel Braver and Vanita Kamath went together all through school, were married after internships in New York City and are living happily ever after in Warren, NJ.