Physical Therapist Profile – Shirael Pollack, MSPT
Bachelor’s and master’s in physical therapy from Long Island University, 2002
After witnessing her friend make a full recovery from a potentially debilitating spinal cord injury, Shirael Pollack knew physical therapy was the path for her. As owner and director of Watch Me Grow, a pediatric therapy center and children’s sensory gym in New York, she helps children overcome their own physical and developmental challenges. She’s been recognized as an "Everyday Hero" by WPIX’s "Dr. Steve" show. She is active with the National Autism Association NY Metro Chapter, serving as chair of its fundraising committee.
Question: What drew you to physical therapy?
Pollack: "In my junior year of high school, with college fast approaching, I started to seriously consider the health care field as a profession. My family and I had been in a serious car accident when I was a child and I had seen the great things doctors and therapists could accomplish, first hand. But my path to physical therapy did not become fully clear until my first year of college. I had left high school one year early after being one of a handful of applicants accepted into a great 2-year honors program at New York’s Rockland County Community College that allowed students to complete their senior year of high school and first year toward an associate’s degree in one year. During winter break, a very good friend of mine had been seriously injured when a handgun went off in his hand; the bullet pierced his chest and nearly severed his spinal cord. I rushed back from a trip to London when I heard the news and found my good friend — an athletic 19-year-old in the prime of his physical life — lying in a hospital bed, one side of his upper body completely paralyzed. Fortunately, he was at the Helen Hayes Hospital, world-renowned for its rehabilitation programs. Over the next several months, my friend received aggressive rehabilitation with some of the world’s best physical therapists. Later that year, thanks in large part of the tireless work of a team of PTs, my friend had miraculously recovered nearly 90% of the movement he had lost. It was at that point I knew I had to be a PT."
Question: How did you break into the field?
Pollack: "After Rockland County Community College, I graduated from a rigorous, 3-year combined bachelor’s and master’s degree program for physical therapy at Long Island University, Brooklyn Campus. I was 19 years old when I entered, the youngest person in my class, but I was extremely driven. For the first time in my academic life I was really passionate about the material I was learning. It didn’t feel like work to me; it felt like I was finally pursuing my true calling. During grad school, I found work at United Cerebral Palsy (UCP), one of the country’s best rehabilitation and social programs for teens and adults with cerebral palsy and traumatic brain injuries. The work was hard, but extremely rewarding ? especially when I was able to help a young teen or child learning something new. Following grad school, I continued to work at UCP but I also wanted to pursue a career that focused exclusively on helping kids with disabilities. I worked at two different Early Intervention preschools in New York City, first Manhattan’s Kennedy Child Study Center and then in [the] Early Intervention Center of Brooklyn. I also provided home-based care to children all over the city. During those years, I honed my skills and learned what worked and what didn?t. Perhaps the most important thing I learned was that children with special needs thrive best in fun, positive environments where they actually want to receive therapy. I decided to take the plunge and start my own pediatric therapy gym, one where speech, occupational and physical therapy is provided only by the best therapists applying an approach that is positive, enthusiastic, fun, and proactive. Watch Me Grow was born in January 2007. Now in our sixth year, with two locations in Manhattan and after roughly 1,000 children treated, we are very, very proud of what we have accomplished."
Question: What keeps you doing it day in and day out?
Pollack: "Seeing a child with a developmental limitation who you have been working with reach a milestone ?whether it be taking a step, saying a word, holding a crayon or smiling in response to a funny picture ? has to be one of the most rewarding experiences in the world. Seeing the look on the face of the child’s parent when they see it themselves is probably a close second. But separate from the result is the journey toward it and that really is its own reward. At Watch Me Grow, we have created and adhere to an extraordinary interdisciplinary, collaborative approach where speech, occupational, and physical therapists work as a team to treat, observe, discuss, and brainstorm ideas, all with a single overarching goal in mind — to achieve the best results for the children in our care. This collaborative, team-based model is both challenging and gratifying. Working with and creating real-time solutions with some of the best therapists in their respective disciplines is just incredible. Cultivating the team and then being a part of that team is what motivates me."
Question: What’s one of the most memorable experiences you’ve had, either as a student or in your professional career?
Pollack: "One of the children I treated was a wonderful little boy who was born two months premature. He weighed less than one pound and had all of the physical impairments you would expect and then some — his heart didn’t beat properly; he could barely breathe on his own; his muscles and skeleton were hardly formed. The doctors could not answer how long he would survive or what kind of life he would have if he did. But his spirit was very much intact. For two years I worked with this child. At first he was a very tiny little baby, but we set the right goals — integrating his reflexes, holding different postures, even tolerating being held. We later graduated to bigger things like building strength, walking and eventually running. I am proud to say that by age 2, this little boy was ready to be discharged having achieved the typical development levels. It was amazing and inspiring."
Question: What kinds of activities do you do to maintain professionalism in the field and stay up-to-date?
Pollack: "I believe it is absolutely vital to stay on top of developments in the PT field. After all, our goal is do the best job we can to help children reach their full potential and we need to know and apply the latest therapies in order to do that. To stay on top of things, I make sure I stay connected to the physical therapy community as a whole. For example, Watch Me Grow frequently hosts continuing education courses for PTs and other therapists, including some led by nationally-recognized professionals. I also think it is important to share my own experiences with others and I have been able to do so through newsletters and even in a television appearance on WPIX’s ‘Dr. Steve Show,’ during which I was able to discuss how physical therapy can help children with autism. I am also Chairperson of the National Autism Association’s Fundraising Committee, which allows me to take city and state-wide action on an issue I feel very strongly about. In addition, Watch Me Grow was recently certified by New York City as a Minority and Women Owned Business, and through that I have been able to take advantage of a series of opportunities to meet with other business leaders to learn from their experiences beyond the therapy world."
Question: What advice do you have for people just starting their education or their professional career?
Pollack: "I think the most important thing is to love what you do. And the only way you can really know if you love it is by doing it. So I would recommend that people interested in any career give it a try before they go down the road of spending a lot of time and money on a degree. Take an entry-level job in the field where you can see people doing it, first hand. And if you can’t find a paying job, look for opportunities to volunteer. If you don’t see such opportunities, make some calls and create them yourself! Be proactive. The last thing you want to do is spend years on a degree that leaves you hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt, only to realize it is not your passion."