One on One with Renee Zarif

“I am a very religious person who believes that it all comes back to Hashem.  We develop routines and then life happens and we have to adjust.  Life is constantly changing but it’s a lot of fun.  I chose physical therapy because I love developing close relationships with people and helping them progress and reach their goals.” ~~ Renee ~~

Renee Zarif, née Spigel, grew up in Brooklyn close to where she lives now.  She describes herself as a very spiritual, determined, and passionate person, who commits 100 percent to everything she takes on.  Educated at Yeshivah of Flatbush from nursery through high school, Renee proudly acknowledges that her life choices were greatly influenced by Yeshivah of Flatbush, shaping her into the person she is today.

Renee is the oldest of four children and speaks daily to her two brothers and sister.

Her parents, both of Lebanese descent, met in the U.S. and worked hard to build a life here. “We are a very close-knit family and adore our WhatsApp chat.  My parents have always supported me in attaining my dreams and goals.”

Renee was a shy and serious child who loved school and stayed in on weekends to study.  In high school Renee became more outgoing.  She learned to achieve a balance between academics and socializing and graduated with honors.

“I still love school!  I finished college with extra credits, was valedictorian of my Doctorate program at Touro, and always take more professional development courses than required.”

Coming of Age

After high school Renee entered Brooklyn College with a pre-med major. She was set on becoming a doctor and immediately enrolled in the prerequisite science classes. During the summer after her sophomore year, Renee volunteered in the Emergency Room at Beth Israel Hospital.  Her main assignments were transporting patients from the ER to various floors and bringing specimens to the lab. The experience was disappointing because Renee only got to spend minimal time with the patients.  As a social person, she missed the human contact.

Returning to Brooklyn College in the fall for her junior year, Renee befriended a woman in her physics class who told her about a rehabilitation internship opportunity for health-related careers including occupational and physical therapy, pain management, nutrition, and others.  Her classmate, Rachel, who was pursuing PT, encouraged Renee to apply for what she described as a very competitive program.  B”H, Renee was chosen for a PT placement.

“It was the coolest internship but scary too. I was assigned to the neuro rehabilitation unit at NYU hospital for a month.  From 9am to 2pm I shadowed a physical therapist and from 2pm to 4pm the interns from the diverse disciplines got together, participating in breakout groups and classes.  Our common goal was to learn how to rehabilitate a patient after surgery.  Neuro sounded intimidating – I asked to be moved but was encouraged to try it.  The exposure was amazing and I decided to pursue PT.  Today I practice neuro PT.”

A Match Is Made

While Renee was busy with her college studies, she met her naseeb, Solomon Zarif, at a simcha.  It was hashgacha pratit that Solomon’s best friend was engaged to Renee’s cousin.  Seven years older, Solomon was already a businessman, specializing in wholesale men’s and boy’s clothing.

Renee and Solomon got married in September 2009. “I liked that Solomon was very mature. He’s my #1 cheerleader and he and his family are so loving and proud of the work I do.”

Hashem blessed the couple with three girls, aged ten, six, and eighteen months old.

Training

Renee graduated from Brooklyn College after she married Solomon. She was pregnant with their first child when she was accepted to every PT doctoral programs she had applied to.  Downstate was her first choice but she opted for Touro College because it offered time off for all the hagim.

“Touro was an excellent decision. I gained freedom to be with my husband and daughter on hagim and received the best education.  I started when my oldest was nine months old.  My favorite professors influenced my training and views on PT.”

Dr. Robert Schreyer taught Anatomy, Renee’s first class at Touro, as well as the courses on neurological disorders and interventions.  It was in those classes that Renee decided to specialize in neuro PT.“Dr. Schreyer painted the issues and treatments in a way that showed me what PT looked like in practice.  People have to live with their disorders but there are ways we can intervene so they live with them in an optimal way.”

Renee was required to do four hands-on affiliations in grad school.  She was fortunate to do the fourth one at Dr. Schreyer’s PT clinic.  Renee was six months pregnant with her second child when she started this track.  For ten weeks, Renee shadowed Dr. Schreyer and was guided by him in the evaluation and treatment of neurological and orthopedic cases.  Her preceding affiliation was in pediatrics, and she noticed overlapping concepts between the two specialties.

What Excited Renee About PT School?

“I was taught how to differentiate between true back pain versus pain that was related to another disease such as kidney disease or a tumor. I learned how to look for symptoms that were presenting from medications that my patients were prescribed. My neurological patients, for example, the ones with Parkinson’s Disease, rely heavily on medications that cause side effects.”

Renee discovered that PT was not just about treating a patient’s pain but was also about evaluating the whole picture.

She developed the confidence to communicate well, which is so essential in treating her clients.  “The training got me out of my comfort zone and I love the human connection part of my profession. I am so grateful that, with Hashem’s help, I’ve helped so many people.”

Practicing PT

Six years ago, when Renee began her career at the Aspire Wellness Center her two daughters were four and just four months old.  She worked there two days a week, treating adults and children with neurological and orthopedic issues.  The other two days, Renee treated young yeshiva students through a school-based agency. She juggled her family responsibilities and two jobs with the help of a babysitter, her devoted mother, and, of course, Solomon.

When Renee graduated from Touro, she wanted to be the best physical therapist and to save the world.  However, she began to recognize that she had other precious obligations to her wonderful husband and children, and she worked to create a work-life balance that was fulfilling and manageable.

Renee did a combination of clinical and yeshiva-based PT work for approximately five years and then started seeing patients independently.  She currently visits clients in their homes, wearing a mask and working safely.  Renee is available for virtual visits and has been leading online Zoom classes for parents, with a focus on exercise, pediatric awareness of red flags, and games to incorporate for children. She has also been doing home exercise programs via Zoom for adults.

“I am so happy and grateful every day that I chose PT as a career. I educate mothers to get PT for their children early on, to avoid problems later.  Mothers can often pick up on issues earlier than pediatricians. For example, ‘my nineteen-month-old son is walking on his toes.’  Parents are scared of labels.  I encourage them to view intervening early and taking advantage of medical knowledge, as positive steps.”

As Renee and I talked I noted how upbeat, energetic, self-aware, and spiritual she is.

Renee is impassioned about family, Judaism, physical therapy, and exercise.  She confessed that she did not exercise during PT school and committed to exercising 100 percent in 2017 when she was focused on losing weight.  “I really love exercising in a crazy way.  I do cardio, strength training, yoga, Pilates, and barre.  It helps me mentally, emotionally, and physically, and most definitely helps me to help my PT clients.”

Renee also makes time for Sephardic Bikur Holim community projects, cooking and baking for families in need, and supporting patients of the Morris I. Franco Community Cancer Center.

Renee encourages aspiring therapists to do as much volunteer work as they can, including shadowing a physical therapist, before applying to PT school.

What’s Next?

Renee is a lifetime learner. She thrives on taking continuing ed classes to sharpen her PT skills.  Check out her Instagram page and you will be wowed by Renee’s positive energy and creativity.  Renee’s goal is to educate her followers about what PT is and how it can help them.  Click on the games for children (gross motor skills) and tips for adults relating to orthopedic and neurological issues.

You can reach Renee by phone – 718-687-3180, email reneezarifdpt@gmail.com, or on Instagram @reneezarif.

Ellen Geller Kamaras, CPA/MBA, is an International Coach Federation (ICF) Associate Certified Coach.  Her coaching specialties include life, career, and dating coaching. Ellen works part-time as an entitlement specialist at Ohel Children’s Home and Family Services. She can be contacted at ellen@lifecoachellen.com (www.lifecoachellen.com).