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SPEAR’s Call to Duty: Helping Those Who Help Others

Hospital staff wearing personal protective equipment

By Dan Rootenberg, PT, DPT

The arrival of the novel Coronavirus will change life as we know it for a long time.

New York City, given its density and interconnection to the rest of the world, has been abruptly stopped in its tracks. No more horns, jackhammers, or sounds of laughter of kids at play in Central Park. While historically, pandemics have occurred every 100 years, no one alive today has seen a global health crisis of this magnitude. It is our new reality. These dark times — filled with stress, grief, and uncertainty — have given us the unique opportunity to shine a light on what is most important to our industry: empathy, community, and connection. People around the country have joined hands and hearts across phone lines, Zoom meetings, and social media. We have found new ways to engage with our patients, colleagues, and families.

Medical experts advise that the most important response is to flatten the curve of infection. Most people stay home in order to socially distance, quarantine, or isolate, while others have been called to duty in the fight against COVID-19. As many are fortunate to be able to shelter in place, we should recognize the sacrifices each person is making for the greater good.

Making the Decision to Stay Open

Since the Department of Homeland Security and New York’s Governor Cuomo identified physical therapy as an essential health care service, we felt a duty to remain open during the crisis. Our therapists were given the option to take paid time off, to stay home and continue treating patients through SPEAR LIVE, our telehealth service, or to treat in-person at any of our clinics. There is a place in our profession for people to contribute to this fight with either of these responses. We are incredibly proud that so many of our team members raised their hands to join in the fight to continue treating essential patients in the clinics. For the therapists and patients who choose to come into the clinics, we have safety as the number-one priority and have (and will continue to) deep clean and sanitize all locations.

Over the past month, our in-clinic visits have decreased from 102% of target all the way down to 10% of target, as the crisis has deepened. We went from no telehealth to 5,000 virtual visits in under three weeks. The patients who are still coming into the office are typically those that are still considered “essential visits” (i.e., patients needing post-operative care, patients with acute conditions, a chronic patient with cerebral palsy who needs consistent manual therapy, or those with severe back pain who would otherwise be seeking opioid treatment at overloaded physician offices or hospitals).

A Shift in Patients

Interestingly, many of the patients coming into the clinics are actually those essential workers who have been out on the frontline — nurses, doctors, even police. Frontline hospital workers are in the middle of the storm, working long shifts, putting themselves and their families at risk, sometimes without the proper protective equipment, in order to selflessly treat those who are ill. They do this not only to save those specific patients, but to secure the safety of the people of an entire city. Certainly, they are feeling the physical stress and emotional toll on their bodies and minds, at times coming into the clinic and collapsing on the tables from sheer exhaustion. Therefore, to treat them and to help alleviate the immense pressure facing medical professionals, our team members have shown deep empathy in caring for these heroic patients.

For example, Gagan Dhaliwal is a therapist at our Park Place clinic who is currently treating an NYPD officer who has been asked to return to work early due to the increased demand. While the patient is hesitant to return early following a wrist injury, Gagan is playing her part to ensure he is prepared and able to perform his duties. Gagan is simultaneously treating an ICU nurse currently working on a unit that cares entirely for COVID-19 patients. Gagan has offered mental and physical support to the nurse and other patients not only by providing therapy, but by listening intently to their stories and offering encouragement after those tough days in the trenches. Gagan is playing a pivotal role in both the officer’s and the nurse’s rehabilitation, and they have both shown great gratitude for the care she has provided to them so that they may both continue caring for others during this critical time. Gagan notes that she feels “fortunate that I am able to ‘pay it forward’ by providing care to those who need it most during this crisis.”

Staff Success Stories

Another example of passionate commitment is Donald Squire, a PT director at SPEAR’s Penn Plaza clinic. The son of an ICU nurse, Don deeply understands the gravity of the work these frontline “soldiers” are performing during this pandemic, so he jumped at the chance to treat a nurse with a shoulder injury. Coming right off a 10-hour work shift at the hospital treating COVID-19 patients, she changed her clothes, wore a mask, and could not have been more thorough about protecting the staff at the clinic from any secondary exposure. She highlighted to Don how patients and health care workers alike are feeling the effects of isolation; they are putting themselves on the line for those they do not even know, but in turn, society — and even loved ones — may see them as a threat or risk to infect others. The nurse was so appreciative that Don, another dedicated professional colleague, was willing to attend to her needs despite the risks he was potentially facing.

“It made me quite emotional to have this brave woman actually thank me for being available to her, and to thank SPEAR for remaining open as a safe place where she could be treated and start to heal,” Don said.

The experience also offered him a moment to take a step back and realize how helping one nurse’s shoulder would help her continue to care for hundreds — it is a powerful action with an even greater positive domino effect. “Remember that caring for front line health care workers allows us each an opportunity to give back to those giving us and the city so much,” he said.

We have always been proud of our special team, but never more than now. We strive to live by our values of empathy and impact, and it is clear that is exactly what we are doing by continuing to offer our services. We do not judge clinics who decided to close, and we hope that others will not judge us for staying open. APTA President Sharon Dunn and PPS APTA President Sandra Norby both recognized the importance of this dynamic process, recognizing that these are decisions we must make individually. There is no one-size-fits-all approach so long as we apply our professional judgement, clinical expertise, and value-based care. We are doing so with an eye toward this exact purpose: helping people help others. There are lessons to be learned from this terrible pandemic, and one that it has taught us is that we are all connected in a circle of community. When we help one, we help all. 


Dan Rootenberg

Dan Rootenberg, PT, DPT, is co-founder and CEO of SPEAR Physical Therapy in New York City. He can be reached at dan@spearcenter.com.