A senior supervisor to 60 school-based physical therapists in the Bronx, Catherine Cirillo inspires in her team something only the best bosses receive: respect and loyalty.
Whom do you serve?
We help students who are limited in their physical abilities to access their academic environment safely and effectively. That means being able to get to class, the lunchroom, the library, the playground, anywhere they need to be in the course of a school day. Among the students we serve are those on the autism spectrum as well as those with cerebral palsy, spina bifida, muscular dystrophy, cancer, amputations and a whole host of other issues.
Can you give an example or two of your goals?
We can help students learn to use a walker or negotiate stairs. We also teach students how to sit up comfortably so they can see the blackboard. We teach them how to strengthen and use their upper extremities so they can hold a book.
Have the duties of school-based physical therapists changed?
When I first started at the DOE in 1996, I was one of four physical therapists in the entire Bronx. Now, there are hundreds. Decades ago, there were barrier-free sites — buildings with elevators and other accommodations — where special needs kids attended school. Now children with these issues are mainstreamed in schools, and the physical therapists serve them there.
When you became a supervisor in 2007, did it become a purely desk job?
Oh, no. I will roll up my sleeves and help my therapists if they ask for it or need it, or if I’m teaching them a different way of doing something. And in the evenings, I do private physical therapy with babies from birth to age 3. Physical therapy is my passion!
What does a typical workday look like?
I’m up at 4:30 a.m., exercise, have coffee, and in the office by 6:30 a.m. I love the quiet and the ability to sit still and collect myself. I’m a stickler for returning emails and phone messages. I want mine answered, so I respect that my therapists want theirs answered as soon as possible, too. I may have meetings and paperwork. I may visit therapists to see how they’re doing or if they need anything. Always, if an emergency arises and one of my therapists needs me, I go.
What sort of emergencies?
Recently a therapist told me a girl couldn’t come to school because her wheelchair was broken and because of rules, she was stuck at home and miserable. I called the company and got her a loaner and got her right back in school. Another therapist told me about a high school girl who needed a diaper change during the day. She had been using an examination table in an independent medical facility housed in the school building. But they were so mean to her that she stayed home rather than face the humiliation. I spoke to the assistant principal and we took a staff bathroom away for designated times throughout the day. I took over an examination table to put in it. Just this week, I took a piece of equipment from one school to another, where it was needed. I packed it into my jeep and went — and I was wearing a dress and high heels! Honestly, the most rewarding part of my job is helping my therapists get things done.
How do you supervise and support 60 therapists?
Face-to-face, I see my therapists individually twice a year. But I also run staff development meetings, orientations and special workshops throughout the year.
What is your management style?
I expect nothing from the physical therapists that I wouldn’t expect from myself. I give 100 percent, and so do they. If I happen to be in the neighborhood, I might drop in but right away I’ll say, “If I show up at your house unannounced, I don’t expect a three-course meal but maybe a cup of coffee. But if you know I’m coming and we have work to do, you’d better be ready.” My job is to assist them, trouble-shoot problems, make their jobs easier and make school life better for kids.
How do they make your life easier?
They work hard — and they make me laugh. Once I was asked to assist a therapist in evaluating a “nonambulatory” child in an ill-fitted wheelchair. I decided to bring a walker to see if he could bear weight on his legs or transfer at all from a chair to a standing position. As I placed the walker in front of him, he got up and walked away! The staff was laughing and calling me ‘Miracle worker, miracle worker!’
Can you count on your team in serious times as well?
My husband of 26 years died of cancer in April 2016. They overwhelmed me with calls, food, letters, flowers. They attended his wake and his funeral. So much kindness. I felt their love and compassion. I was back to work a week after he died. My team needed me, and I needed them.
— As told to reporter Christina Cheakalos