By Katie Self
The large, back room at 360 Physical Therapy holds a sizeable exercise pool, several training tables, a few low-resistance weight machines – and a hefty black lab-shepherd mix named Coal.
Coal is Nicole Weitzman’s hearing service dog.
Weitzman, a physical therapist, has been with 360 Physical Therapy since April. In addition to assisting her outside the office, Coal teams up with Weitzman professionally. Service dogs act as natural stress relievers, and Coal is no different.
“When patients are having a bad day, they have someone to talk to and play with for a little while,” Weitzman said.
After a seven-month training program, Coal was matched with Weitzman through the National Education for Assistance Dog Services (NEADS).
“Coal was a rescue along with his sister, who is now a hearing dog in Maine,” Weitzman said.
She also went through one-on-one training to get to know Coal better.
Weitzman reads lips to communicate but is unable to hear everyday sounds such as the microwave timer, doorbell, telephone or someone calling her name. Coal is there to act as her ears, alerting her to such sounds.
Tom Hacker, an occupational therapist with 360 Physical Therapy, said Coal has a calming effect on patients, especially those who are hesitant to begin treatment.
“Coal definitely relaxes patients and always puts a smile on their faces,” he said.
During her pediatric clinical rotation, Weitzman said Coal was used as “play for therapy,” and a therapy dog for those hospitalized for long-term care. “When we needed patients to walk, and they didn’t want to,” Weitzman said. “They walked Coal.”
Weitzman held other occupations and interests prior to becoming a physical therapist. She considered graphic design and photography, and became a personal trainer. Originally from the East Coast, she was working in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001.
“I was a volunteer from the third day, until Mayor Bloomberg shut it down,” she said. “I could not go back to the life I lived. It changed everything about me, [I] quit my job and my life went through a major overhaul.”
As a spectator at the New York City Marathon in November 2001, Weitzman vowed to participate in the marathon the next year and became an avid runner. But witnessing the attacks in New York City “elevated who I am and redefined me,” Weitzman said.
She found Achilles International, a running and walking nonprofit organization that pairs able-bodied with disabled-bodied, all looking to improve their running game. Weitzman completed seven New York marathons, five as an athlete with two pacers, and twice as a volunteer to pay it forward, she said.
After moving to Arizona for the job, Weitzman found a local Achilles chapter and became involved with Daring Adventures, a nonprofit that provides accessibility to outdoor activities for people with disabilities. “I’m hoping to bring much more awareness to people with disabilities,” Weitzman said. “Being active and involved is my goal.”
Weitzman’s personal achievements create a bridge between her and her patients through an understanding of physical needs to maintain a healthy body and compassion.
Tom Spray, physical therapist and clinic director for 360 Physical Therapy, said Weitzman “truly cares about her patients’ wellbeing and progress.”
The need for solid communication skills has led her colleagues to stronger relationships with patients as well. Hacker said he became a better therapist thanks in part to working with Weitzman.
“When communicating with her, [I] have to look her straight in the eye or she might not be able to read my lips,” he said. “I have carried this forward to all of my other patients to make sure they understand my directions for a particular exercise and they know they have my full attention.”
A positive duo such as Weitzman and Coal create a welcoming environment, and patients love having a pup around to add fun to their appointments. Hacker considers her a great example to others that anyone can overcome a disability or injury and be successful.
“I really enjoy having [Weitzman] and Coal in the clinic,” Spray said. “They are a great addition to the city of Maricopa and the 360 Physical Therapy family.”