After 19 years in academic medicine and 20 years of marriage, Eva, a psychiatrist, underwent a divorce and major professional changes. She emerged from the transformation with a mission to help others on a broader scale and co-founded a non-profit and wrote a book to inspire all of us to be kinder to ourselves and others.
Tell us a little about your background.
I grew up in Encino, California, the first child born to two child psychiatrists. The standard joke was that the problems created by one, could be fixed by the other. I have a younger sister and younger brother. We were all told by my father that we could do whatever we wanted, and he wouldn’t try to influence us at all… “We could do orthopedics, radiology, pediatrics…anything we wanted.”
I completed my undergraduate and medical school at UCLA and trained at Cornell in Psychiatry. My big rebellion was not doing the extra two years of child fellowship training. Instead, I got married and gave birth to my first child during my residency, so I became a mother before I started my first real job.
After graduation, I moved to Miami and became a faculty member at the University of Miami, Miller School of Medicine. This was my first act and it lasted 19 years. Three days into my new job, I found out my daughter had been born with a disability. More about that later. Four and a half years later, I had another daughter.
Despite the extra challenges of raising a child with a disability and her younger sister, I had a very rewarding career in academic medicine and rose up the ranks to become Vice President of the Department of Psychiatry at the Miller School of Medicine and the Chair of the Department at Mount Sinai Medical Center.
When did you start to think about making a change?
In 2008, after 20 years of marriage, my husband and I separated and ultimately divorced. At the time, I did not know all the ripple effects it would have. During a very difficult two-year separation and divorce process, I left my position at the university.
As I was already actively treating many patients, I decided to open my own practice. For the next several years, my practice rapidly grew until it became more than full time. At that point, I decided I would leave private practice as it had never been what I really planned or desired to do. I didn’t know what I was going to do next, but I knew I couldn’t continue on the path I was on. I felt the strain of the practice was taking too big a toll on my psychological health as well as my physical health. The demands of having a young adult with a disability proved to be as challenging as a child with special needs and in some ways, harder.
I started to tell patients that I was closing my practice and referred them to other physicians. After I had told about half of my patients I was leaving, I began to feel much better. I made the decision to continue with a reduced patient load. This worked well on many levels and I began to feel I was finding a new balance. It was the first time in my life that I wasn’t working excessive hours. The lingering problem was that I felt professionally isolated, as many clinicians do. I missed being part of a team. I was used to being in a bustling environment, interacting all day long with multiple other professionals as well as trainees at all levels. The university environment always provided me with a feeling of being part of something bigger than myself and I longed for a sense of community and larger purpose.
Fate stepped in and I was introduced to Shelly Baer. Shelly is a social worker and leader in the disability community. She developed juvenile rheumatoid arthritis when she was three years old. A mutual friend thought she might be a good resource for me and my daughter, so I called her and asked her to dinner. We became friends and she invited me to help her with a project to empower women with disabilities. Enter my next act: Volunteerism!
What is your next act?
I am the Co-Founder (along with Shelly Baer) of The Bold Beauty Project, a Miami-based nonprofit launched in 2015 with a mission to raise awareness for women with disabilities. We identify inspiring women with varying disabilities and pair them with award-winning, volunteer photographers. We create exhibitions and installations that display the images of these extraordinary women and include their very moving personal narratives.
We have developed a Bold Beauty Project Replication Package and go to different cities and work with local women with disabilities and photographers. The concept is to incorporate as many people as possible in our project so we can help these women see themselves, and have others see them, in their most bold and beautiful way. The Bold Beauty Project has been shown in multiple cities including Philadelphia, Washington DC, Miami, Austin, Palm Beach, and more. In December 2019, we were very proud to have our first international show in Panama City. In January 2020, we hosted our first fashion show with our models from Panama and the US called Inclusivity is the New Black.
My next act also continues with the publication of my third book, Bekindr: The Transformative Power of Kindness. Having learned so much by moving out of my comfort zone to volunteer to help others, I wanted to inspire others to do the same. In my book, I share how the photographer Robert Zuckerman helped my daughter grow to reach new heights, along with 63 other stories of kind acts by strangers. I also include a lot of factual information and resources to help readers in their journey to “Bekindr.”
At the launch party in November 2017, my Editor and Strategic Advisor, Patrice Samara, announced that we were starting the Bekindr Global Initiative. I was completely taken by surprise when she first mentioned it, but we both dove right in and haven’t looked back! Since then, we have been actively involved with multiple global projects to create more kindness in the world. We have been traveling around the US conducting workshops, giving lectures at corporations, schools, and civic organizations, meeting with students, and supporting other non-profits including intercity youth runners and a road-race in Africa. We have developed a Bekindr Jewelry Making Workshop giving marketable skills to female immigrants and women in need at New Destiny Family Success Center in Paterson, NJ.
I love these projects. They give me a deep sense a purpose beyond myself and my private practice. Both projects have given me the opportunity to connect with fascinating people from all walks of life who share the goal of trying to make the world a better place. I have learned not to judge people by the way they look, sound, or what you perceive they can or cannot do. Many of the most impactful people I have met are those like my daughter, who have had so many challenges.
I feel very fortunate that my upbringing, professional and personal experiences have given me the opportunity to interact with such a diverse number of people.
How hard was it to take the plunge?
Although everything seems so logical in hindsight, it was very challenging at the time. I changed my job, had the continual concern of a child/adult with a disability, moved homes several times to reduce expenses, and have had to change my daily lifestyle to juggle work and my philanthropic pursuits. I’m now grateful for all the changes that occurred in my life as they have allowed me to grow, develop, and hopefully make a lasting impact in the lives of others by evolving to a place where I can and love to give back.
How supportive were your family and friends?
My only family in Miami was my two daughters. They have always been my greatest supporters. I know they are very proud of the work I do, and this energizes me to keep going. My older daughter, Joy, born with a form of Cerebral Palsy, fuels my passion for helping those with special needs, which stems from my deep love and respect for her and desire to see her live in a more accepting world.
Joy is a huge asset to both the Bold Beauty Project and the Bekindr Global Initiative. She helps me on a daily basis and I am helping her develop a product line for adaptive products called Joyfully You. My daughter, Gigi, now lives in DC and shares her wisdom daily. She has a keen ability to look at the big picture of any challenge; she has inspired me by going out into the world on her own with a deep compassion for others. My family of origin lives in McLean Virginia and Los Angeles. They have provided support the journey in innumerable ways. I feel very blessed to have both parents alive one at 89 and the other at 90. The distance is difficult but I have do my best to visit often.
I had a very interesting experience during my transition. One of the most helpful people was a man I still haven’t met in person. His name is Louie Free and he is the host of a radio show called Brain Food from the Heartland. I was on air with Louie at the exact time I was separating from my husband. I was doing PR for my second book, The Beauty Prescription: The Complete Formula for Looking and Feeling Beautiful. Louie asked me if I wanted to talk off air and he became my confidante and cheerleader. He urged me to see the positives in my life and to be brave and move forward, not backward. He interviewed me on air many times and even had my daughter on with me. I spoke with his wife, who encouraged me as well. I have made a lifelong friend in Louie and I am forever grateful for his support and help in my time of need. Bekindr is dedicated to him and to my daughters. I could not be where I am today without their assistance. I hope my book will help others to find the kindness that comes so naturally to Louie and others like him.
What challenges are you encountering?
One of my greatest challenges has been to find the energy to keep these three professional balls in the air at the same time as I grow older. There is so much work to be done and at the same time, I realize I have to prioritize my health and well-being. I am taking the time to go to doctors and focus on wellness and disease prevention. I try to work out daily and I eat healthy food and avoid alcohol. I find yoga has been very helpful in teaching me to be calm in all situations and accept the ever-changing joys and demands of our lives.
What did you learn about yourself through this process?
I have learned a lot through this process such as recognizing that it may take a long time for things to develop and that we must take pride in every step of the journey and not necessarily be overly focused on the destination.
When I look back on my life, the greatest difficulties I have encountered have also given me the greatest opportunity for growth. When we are in these challenging times, it is hard to see any good coming from them. Now I can see that raising a special needs child and getting divorced in midlife have been my greatest gifts. These events forced me to grow in many positive directions. I am very grateful for all I have learned.
What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?
My best advice is to see it as an opportunity and to move forward bravely. When we continue to do the same thing, we are not growing. When we stop growing, we’re not reaching the best version of our self. Reinvention is a powerful way to move out of your comfort zone and to try new things. As we get older, it becomes easier and easier to stick to the things we know. Reinvention forces us out of these old patterns. Calculated risk can lead to big rewards. By midlife, we are wiser so hopefully the reinvention can progress successfully over time and with effort. Read, do research, speak to friends, colleagues, a therapist or a coach… There are so many resources available to us today to help us make wise choices. Many people begin to think about their legacy as they approach midlife. These reflections can often give us the courage to make changes and the incentive to try to do more.
What resources do you recommend for those interested in promoting kindness?
The idea behind Bekindr is quite simple. Just start thinking more about kindness. We invite all our readers to become a Bekindr Ambassador and spread kindness wherever you go. That’s it!
You can put up Post-It notes to remind yourself. You may first decide to Bekindr to yourself. It is a great place to start. Who doesn’t need more self-care, especially as we get older? Like they say on an airplane, “Put the oxygen mask on yourself first. Then help others.” You may also elect to Bekindr to those around you like family, friends, and colleagues. How many of our problems could be reduced or eliminated if we were just a bit nicer to one another and looked at things through a lens of kindness?
Once you and your inner circle are feeling better, you can extend kindness to strangers either the way Louie did for me, or in a more formal way by giving back or volunteering. You can check out the following websites to help you find a good fit: Idealist.org, VolunteerMatch.org, Createthegood.org. Try out different things and hopefully you will find something that will add meaning and passion to your life. Kindness can also be extended to animals and our environment. Explore, be bold. Whatever inspires you the most is what you should try.
When we can focus on being kinder to ourselves and those around us, our level of well-being can soar. We are all part of an interconnected universe and must see the goodness that surrounds us. Learning to live with love and gratitude is the path to creating more happiness. Connecting with others brings us joy and a sense of purpose and order. Even small amounts of kindness can create very positive ripples for you and those around you. Why not try it and see?
Books I recommend:
The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment by Eckhart Tolle
Breaking The Habit of Being Yourself: How to Lose Your Mind and Create a New One by Joe Dispenza
Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life by Martin Seligman
The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science by Norman Doidge
What’s next for you?
I hope that my next act will be to continue to expand both the Bekindr Global Initiative and the Bold Beauty Project. There can never be enough kindness in the world and Bekindr can help people in countless ways.
I look forward to doing more corporate consulting as I move forward and I have just added, Michelle Leve, a psychologist, to our team.
It is our capacity to be kind that makes us all feel connected as kin. As Kerry Gruson, a Bekindr Contributor and Bold Beauty model and Co-Founder of ThumbsUp International, likes to say, “Together We Can.”
The Bold Beauty Project, in my opinion, is ideally suited for college campuses and that is one of my next goals. I would also like to see the project move beyond the borders of the United States and spread globally. Around the world, women with disabilities could benefit from the Bold Beauty Project. It can be a beacon of light and hope for women everywhere.
Connect with Eva Ritvo, MD
Author: Bekindr The Transformative Power of Kindness
Founder: Bekindr Global Initiative
Co-Founder: Bold Beauty Project
Both of these projects need volunteers in many capacities. If readers are interested in participating with the Bekindr Global Initiative or the Bold Beauty Project, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Private practice : EvaRitvomd.com