Q&A: PT Alumnus Living His Job During Pandemic

John R. Corcoran standing on a street corner with three colleagues.

John R. Corcoran, PT, DPT, MS, Cert.MDT, stands ready for the front line with colleagues (left to right) Mary Fischer, PT, DPT, GCS; fellow University at Buffalo OT grad Megan Evangelist, MS, OTR/L; and Laura Dumbrava, CCC/SLP.

Working the front lines

John Corcoran’s profession is physical therapy, but his musical vocation might provide more of a metaphor for his career, which seems to meld various strains into one harmonious whole. Corcoran (BS/BA ’96), PT, DPT, MS, Cert. MDT, today is the site director for rehabilitation and clinical assistant professor at NYU Langone Health’s Rusk Rehabilitation. That organization, part of one of the country’s top-ranked hospitals, provides rehabilitation care at locations in New York City. According to Corcoran, he’s been “pretty much living” his job during the COVID-19 pandemic.

What does your worklife look like now? 

Hopefully it will be a once-in-a-career experience. With rehab specifically, we always worked seven days a week early to late, but now rehab has been a 24/7 job. It has been incredible to see our health systems mobilize and take in hundreds of patients with a disease we haven’t seen before. We’ve had some great victories, creating COVID-19 units and moving other patients to other units. Also, last year we opened a new hospital that included negative pressure rooms, which also helped us contain the virus. 

The first patient I saw personally had been ventilated in the ICU for a long time and was extremely deconditioned even though he had been in very good shape. The first thing he wanted to do was write a letter to his family, but he couldn’t hold a pen. Once he could hold the pen, we helped him sit up in a chair, and so on. The rehabilitation needs of COVID-19 patients with profound deconditioning are enormous. 

We’re also thinking about how to keep people healthy who have gone home. So we changed the entire layout of hospital and have a COVID-19 positive rehab unit, helping patients relearn how to do things like walk again. 

What have you learned? 

At first, the rehab team were worried about treating COVID-19 patients because there were so many unknowns. The anxiety dropped substantially once we started to see similarities between COVID-19 and other diseases. For instance, we see respiratory-function issues all the time in diseases like TB or SARS or MERS. If somebody has one of those diseases, we know how to treat them to some extent. So COVID-19 is not completely unique. With the right PPE [personal protection equipment] you can protect the patient, their family and health care workers. 

What can PT students learn from what’s happening today with the pandemic? 

Go back and study other pandemics. The second wave of COVID-19 infections that people talk about happened during the 1918 influenza pandemic. We can learn from that and compare it to what’s happening in China, Europe and parts of the U.S. now. I would also revisit what we studied with MERS and SARS— what we can learn from these other coronaviruses? 

Also, the U.S. health system is set up to run like a business. Hospitals are praised for having no capacity because that means we’re running efficiently. But with COVID-19, we had to make room for patients and stop non-essential services; we had PPE shortages. We’ll have to re-look at this for the future so we have the supplies, the staff and the capacity to treat patients. The country developed bank stress tests after the 2008 financial crisis. We need to do that now with our healthcare system: come up with hypotheses about what could happen and what will stress the system. 

"It’s a privilege to see people in catastrophic times and bring them to a better place." -John Cocoran

What other aspects of your career are meaningful in terms of where you find yourself today? 

I was fortunate to work with some of the early experts in rehab medicine, colleagues of Dr. Rusk, like Dr. Frank Padrone and Dr. Martha Sarno. Rusk Rehabilitation is a very interesting place. One of my patients was a separated conjoined twin, for instance. The focus here is what we can do to restore their lives to what they were before their illness or disease, and I’ve seen patients go on to do tremendous things after tremendous injuries. I also help accredit rehab hospitals, starting in the U.S. but also internationally now, with CARF [Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities]. That’s a privilege because I get to see different health systems and how they work. 

Why did you decide to get a degree in physical therapy? 

My first career was music, and I moved to New York City to try to make it as a musician. Of course, I had to find a plan B—which wasn’t PT, either. I took the fire department test, and then I flew up to Buffalo to visit my sister, who was in UB’s occupational therapy program. As soon as I got off the plane, I felt connected to the campus. I decided I would apply to one PT program, which is crazy because it’s so competitive. PT turned out to be the right thing for me. 

How do you recall your time at SPHHP? 

It was stellar. I loved it and miss it.  Dr. Dale Fish was my anatomy teacher, and he had such a fun way of teaching that we enjoyed a really hard class. I got to hold a heart and move the valves. It was incredibly moving. My external physiology professors—Harold Burton, Frank Czerny—helped me out in so many different ways. Sue Bennett taught me neural anatomy and how to work with people with neural disabilities. 

Why is physical therapy an important profession? 

It’s a privilege to see people in catastrophic times and bring them to a better place. PTs spend more time with patients than any other discipline. You really get into the nuances of your patients, which helps with their recovery. I ask them what they want to get back to. Sometimes it will be hard, but we can usually get them there—maybe with a modification or special training or equipment. Seeing how they come back to life is amazing. Helping change patients’ lives changes your own. 

Published December 14, 2020