Itís Not Childís Play
words by Susan Preston / photographs by Pete Byron
Jacqueline Kaari attended a progressive Ocean County public high school and graduated from “a university that emphasized women in leadership roles and had wonderful women mentors.”
ut when it came time to pick her career, traditional thinking prevailed — teacher, secretary, nurse. “I had a talent for science, but no one suggested that I become a doctor,” Kaari says with a rueful smile.
“Today, young women have so many career choices. The world has changed so much,” she comments. The 46-year-old pediatrician, and mother of two girls, knows firsthand about the increased opportunities from watching her daughters make choices. Jennifer, 23, is a senior at Montclair State University studying the classics. She spent two years as an Americorps volunteer, first working all over the country and then primarily in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina. Jessica, 21, is a senior at Alaska Pacific University, majoring in psychology. She spent several months working with tribal natives living in remote parts of Alaska and a month volunteering in Malawi, Africa.
After Kaari received her Bachelor of Science degree in biology and chemistry from Georgian Court University, she became a high school science teacher in Forked River and then Toms River. “I liked working with the kids, but hated the rigidity of the educational system, with little room for innovation or developing new programs.” She taught for four years, but knew she had to switch careers.
Because she found science so interesting, Kaari contemplated nursing. “Then it occurred to me: ‘Why can’t I study medicine?’ I was more self-confident by then and I wanted to try it.” She decided to go forward, applying only to medical schools in New Jersey and Philadelphia so her daughters, then 5 and 8, would not have to relocate. “I was very interested in osteopathic medicine, not only because it treats the whole person but because it is more open to women and non-traditional students.”
She was accepted into the Class of 1997 at the UMDNJ-School of Osteopathic Medicine (SOM) and was on her way, but dealing with child care during medical school was a challenge. “My family provided assistance for school vacations and study time, and my kids went to summer camps and after school programs. When they were sick, my friends and family pitched in.”
Kaari had completed her first year when a family health crisis threw her off-track. “My brother-in-law was diagnosed with leukemia, and the family needed to be there for him. Medical school required my full attention and under the circumstances, I decided to take a leave of absence for a year.” The most difficult part of the break was that the first two years are focused on the basic sciences and then students take part 1 of the medical boards, but her friends helped her study. She graduated with the Class of 1998.
Choosing pediatrics as her specialty was a no-brainer. “I love kids, so it was a natural progression for me. I knew I could handle working with sick children all day and then go home and be a good mother to my own kids.” Kaari completed her internship and residency at Cooper Hospital/University Medical Center, spending one day each week in the SOM pediatrics practice. Her decision of where to look for work was another no-brainer. “I had great mentors at SOM and I was thrilled to be offered a position as a faculty member.”
Now fast-forward 10 years to 2008. Kaari is not only an assistant professor of pediatrics, but last year was appointed acting chair of the Department of Pediatrics. As part of her responsibilities, she oversees a medical practice of four faculty members, a nurse, a physician assistant, residents, medical students and students training to be nurse practitioners. The practice is located in Washington Township and serves about 2,000 patients annually. “I wear many hats,” she says.
Although Kaari never planned to become an administrator, “I find that I like being part of making decisions about running and growing a medical practice.”
Her administrative duties are significant, but she also sees patients every day. “When a parent calls you about a sick child, it’s a responsibility and a privilege. A lot of trust accompanies that call. I think our practice is well-regarded. Even SOM faculty members bring their children to us.”
She estimates that 75 percent of her time is spent in clinical practice or teaching. “The second year students shadow the physicians and third year students do six-week rotations with us; and in the fourth year, pediatrics is an elective and we work closely with the students on setting career goals and writing letters of recommendation for residency programs.”
Kaari admits it’s hard to make time for research and scholarly pursuits — an important consideration in the academic world for promotion and tenure. But if she could find time for an additional project, it would be to develop an effective means of communicating to parents that childhood immunizations are critical. Just mention the topic and Kaari is on fire. “Immunizations are the most life-saving breakthrough we’ve made in the field of prevention and wellness, yet the negative press linking some vaccines to childhood illnesses like autism confuses parents. Then they read conflicting information on the Internet and they lose sight of the deadly illnesses prevented by immunizations.”
Even in the relatively short time since Kaari started practicing, the issues in child health have changed substantially. “This has always been a very hard profession,” she says, “because pediatricians are responsible for a child’s health from birth to young adulthood.”
“But parents’ perceptions about childhood illnesses have changed based on the vast amount of unfiltered information at their fingertips. Some of that change is good because it helps to raise questions. But we don’t always have the information, especially related to developmental issues like autism and attention deficit disorder.”
When she assesses her professional goals, Kaari knows she wants to become a full professor. She has taken on a leadership role in the American College of Osteopathic Physicians as a member of its Continuing Medical Education Committee, co-chairing the pediatric section of its national conference last spring and chairing the pediatrics section for the fall meeting. “I like to interact with colleagues all over the country.”
Still seeing herself at the beginning of her career, the pediatrician does not envision retiring. “I have so many ideas for new academic programs for students. What we do at SOM can have a global impact because our students go all over the world as physicians. I want to improve diagnostics and treatment for children with developmental disabilities. I want to impact any lingering negative attitudes about women’s competencies in the professional world. I want to show by example what women can do, that the only limits are the ones we put on ourselves.”
She wants her daughters to have the opportunity to follow their hearts and interests in choosing careers. Jennifer wants to be an archivist. Jessica is considering being a nurse practitioner. “It will be a proud moment for my family when they both graduate next year. If I were their pediatrician, I would be releasing them from my care, but I’m their mother and I intend to be a part of their lives for many years to come.”