The Making of a Spine P.T.: The Busy Life of Dr. Rami Said

Apr. 17, 2019

Many people end up in jobs that suit them just okay. Not Rami Said, D.P.T. His work as a physical therapist fits him like a surgical glove. Ask anyone: His academic background as an engineer combines with his personality to make the clinics and classrooms of Columbia an outstanding fit for him.

It’s tempting to trace Dr. Said’s specialty in the complex structure of human joints back to the jigsaw puzzles of his preschool years. He liked to turn the pieces upside-down, so there was no picture, to make solving the puzzle more challenging. His mother found him doing this when he was just 4 years old.

But Dr. Said actually arrived at Columbia University Irving Medical Center/NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital after a long academic journey that might have taken him in other directions. In school, his interest in the way things fit together meant he did well in science and math. When it came time to think about post-secondary education, he figured engineering would make sense.

He decided to apply to the prestigious Albert Nerken School of Engineering at The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York City. Cooper Union’s program was both world-renowned and, at the time, tuition-free. Admissions were extremely selective. A few of his high school teachers counseled against reaching so high, but Said was undeterred.
(He reflects now, “A trend is that, when people tell me I can’t do something, I work harder to prove I can.”)

Cooper Union accepted him. The summer after his senior year of high school, Said was looking forward to college, with his academic future ahead of him. The only trouble that summer was something that happened while playing basketball.

A week after high school graduation, Said tore his ACL, a central ligament in his knee, playing ball. The long recovery included physical therapy. Said remembers that the experience opened his eyes to “all kinds of necessary work and change.” He now considers the ACL injury the origin of his passion for learning and teaching about the human body. But it would be some time before he incorporated healthcare into his career plans.

In the fall of 1997, Said entered Cooper Union. “It was probably the hardest thing I ever did,” he says. He found himself scrambling to meet radically new expectations. Time management was king. Dr. Said says he still relies on the efficiency he had to develop then. But the intense academics suited him.

At the same time, through physical therapy and adjustments to his lifestyle, Said had gotten his knee ready for prime time. He joined the Cooper Union basketball team. The team, made up of self-described nerds, didn’t appear to have great prospects. The team had very little money, and the school did not even have a gym. But Cooper Union basketball did do well—and their underdog story charmed even the national media.

The student-athletes and their coach had a solid 15 minutes of fame in the early 2000s. Bryant Gumbel did a “Real Sports” segment, and The New York Times ran a story. When the Times interviewed players, Said gave credit to his coach, Dean Stephen Baker, saying, “I never had a stranger believe in me so much.”

But Said had given the coach plenty to believe in. Dean Baker remembers:

“Rami had all A’s, with the most difficult professors in the school. And he would share information, so the people around him would increase their knowledge. Whatever he was interested in doing became very interesting for everybody else around him.

“Most engineers know the numbers, and they’re problem solvers, group thinkers. They’re not decision makers. But Rami is a great decision maker. He analyzes and evaluates everything, and he knows how to make decisions that will benefit everybody.

“You can’t touch his work ethic. He worked so hard at basketball that he became one of the better players of Cooper’s basketball program, which is the story of his life. Anything he gets interested in, he becomes better at. And he shares it with other people in such a humane way.”

Playing basketball melded Said’s interest in mechanics with his wonder at how the human body could recover and perform. It got him interested in biomechanics, and he found opportunities to study the subject during the summers between mechanical engineering semesters. He began to think about the human body as a complex machine, and his increasingly advanced understanding of forces and motion became highly relevant.

Said finished his undergraduate degree first in his class, and he was invited to join Tau Beta Pi, the national engineering honors society. Extra credits from his college years had already set him well down the path toward a master’s degree, so he was able to rocket through his master’s at Cooper Union in a single semester while considering his options for the future.

After graduating, Said got a job as a lab coordinator for a biomedical engineer who was designing hip and knee replacements. Said liked the work, but he is a people person, so he knew that lab work would only be one part of his future. While continuing to work, he took medical school prerequisite courses and kept thinking.

Clarity eventually emerged from among Said’s activities and interests. He wanted to do some form of teaching. And he wanted to do it at the intersection of physics, biology, athletics and human connection. With a twinkle in his eye, he says, “I decided —as LeBron James once said—to ‘take my talents to’ physical therapy.”

So in 2004, Said enrolled in the Doctoral Program in Physical Therapy at Columbia University’s Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, and he excelled. In his final year, the Columbia program faculty chose him as the school’s nominee for a national award, the Mary McMillan Scholarship Award for P.T. students with exceptional ability and promise, and Said won.

In P.T. school, Said also worked as a research assistant for Dr. Evan Johnson, at the time a full-time faculty member and now Director of Physical Therapy at The Spine Hospital at the Neurological Institute of New York. The two worked on 3-D computer modeling of how joints respond to treatment.

Dr. Johnson says Said “brought his engineering background, real smarts and a logical way of seeing through problems. On top of that, he brought a good nature, humanity and a compassionate approach to life.”

Dr. Said stayed involved with the P.T. program after graduation, as a teaching assistant. Columbia Professor Emeritus Dr. Risa Granick refers to him as “a born teacher.” During this time, Dr. Said saw everything coming together—his work as an instructor, as a therapist and as a researcher.

“As physical therapists, we help patients feel better,” he says. “But not only that. We educate them about their bodies—why and how they move the way they do—and show them how to be healthier with their movement.”

Dr. Said says classroom teaching makes him a better therapist. Because academic life keeps him on top of what’s current, his patients make more progress. He can avoid the trap of habitually treating everyone who has a similar problem in the same old ways. Involvement in the P.T. school “fuels me to think harder and not get complacent,” says Dr. Said. “Teaching means keeping up with the latest and greatest so we can improve ourselves.”

An attentive P.T. can learn a lot during treatments, too. “Patients don’t realize how much they teach us,” Dr. Said reflects. “It’s crucial to remember that no patient is going to be the same as the one who came before.” Each interaction with a patient offers continuing education. With this mindset, Dr. Said took on a new job as the manager of an outpatient clinic for a private P.T. practice in New Jersey and continued to develop his skills.

Meanwhile, the physical therapy program at Columbia’s Spine Hospital was thriving under Dr. Johnson’s direction. When a full-time P.T. position opened up there, Dr. Johnson called Dr. Said right away. “He was the very obvious choice,” Dr. Johnson says. Dr. Said’s knowledge base and his personality were just what Dr. Johnson wanted. He explains:

“It is so important for a therapist to understand the strain a particular surgery places on each part of a patient’s body, and then to know, during treatment, which stresses will be beneficial—and which could have a negative impact.

“All of that is really well informed if you understand, as engineers do, the forces that act on the human body. That’s what Rami brings to the table. What’s even more unusual is that he’s not a pocket-protector type. He connects to people on a human level. He’s such a good guy.”

Dr. Johnson is also happy to welcome the versatile Dr. Said back to the P.T. program’s classrooms to teach in several areas, currently gross anatomy, kinesiology, therapeutic exercise, orthopedics, and biomechanics. Dr. Johnson says that Dr. Said’s interactions as a teacher are informed by “compassion and decency.” And Dr. Said’s students respond to that. “He is the best. He is incredible,” reads one of his course evaluations.

Professor Stacy Kinirons, P.T., Ph.D., M.P.H., Assistant Professor of Rehabilitation and Regenerative Medicine at CUIMC, taught Dr. Said when he was in Columbia’s P.T. program, and like Dr. Johnson, she is delighted to have him back to lecture in her course. Dr. Kinirons says that Dr. Said’s students, like his patients, can tell how much he cares about them. She says:

“He is passionate about the material. He puts 110 percent into everything he does because he cares so much about being a consummate professional and because he cares so much about the success of each student and patient. When you couple those things, what he can achieve is tremendous.”

For his part, Dr. Said feels grateful for his students and his colleagues. He says he loves Columbia’s environment—the opportunity to work with extraordinary students who push him, and to collaborate in teaching, treatment and research with clinicians at the tops of their fields. He has been back for eight years now, and he wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

Home life is wonderful, too. Dr. Said credits everything that he is able to accomplish to another very important P.T. in his life—his wife Lauren is also a physical therapist. They have two young children. And if this weren’t enough to keep a man busy, he has also become involved with online education, both teaching and pursuing a Ph.D. himself. (Remember the serious time-management chops he developed in college?)

Meanwhile, he is still part of the Cooper Union basketball program. After several years assisting, he recently took over as head coach of the men’s basketball team. “The students who play are really dedicated to it,” he reflects. “They want to do it for so many reasons other than just basketball, and that both keeps me engaged and provides a way I can give back to my alma mater.”

How does Dr. Said do all that he does at such a high level? “Well,” he jokes, “I have a clone, so that helps.” In fact, the secret to his success as a physical therapist, a classroom teacher, an online teacher, a college basketball coach, a husband and a parent of two is aptitude, of course, and love for the paths he’s chosen. “While it seems like so much, everything I do is because it means something special to me,” he says.

And everyone he encounters seems to experience the warmth that comes with such enthusiasm. “Rami Said has a heart of gold,” summarizes Professor Stacy Kinirons. “That’s what makes him so good in the clinic and the classroom.”

His former college basketball coach and academic dean, Stephen Baker, agrees. Dr. Said is “a smiler,” says Baker. “He’s putting a smile on his own face, and he’s putting smiles on other people’s faces too.” For sure, his presence in the Columbia Department of Neurosurgery puts a smile on ours.

Read more about Dr. Said on his bio page here.

Read more about Dr. Johnson on his bio page here.

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