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Philly rehab guru Joe Zarett takes his hands-on physical therapy to Comcast HQ

Joseph Zarett, rehab guru for local celebrities and athletes, has opened in the Comcast Center as part of the company's project to jazz up its expanding Center City campus and offer the amenities of other tech giants like Apple and Google.

Joseph Zarett has opened a new rehab and physical therapy facility inside the Comcast Center in Center City.
Joseph Zarett has opened a new rehab and physical therapy facility inside the Comcast Center in Center City.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

Joe Zarett waves at the “wall of fame” at his rehab facility, just south of Rittenhouse Square. Pictured there: actor Sylvester Stallone, Philly boxer Bernard Hopkins, tennis great Pete Sampras, and the world’s No. 2 woman squash player, Egypt’s Raneem El Weleily.

They all sought Zarett’s charismatic personality and famed obsession for physical therapy. El Weleily, 29, was crying when she came to Zarett in 2014 with a badly twisted ankle. She injured herself in New York and feared she would miss a Philadelphia tournament. But she made it to the finals after seeing Zarett. “Joe was the first doctor to treat me,” she said by phone from Cairo.

This summer, Zarett opened his second rehab and fitness facility in the Comcast Center, about 10 blocks to the north. The idea: to make insurance-covered physical therapy an elevator ride away for many of Comcast’s 8,000 downtown employees. It’s also an amenity for those who can fork over $125 an hour for fitness and strength training, stretching and massage when they come off insurance-covered care.

Comcast hopes to treat nagging back, neck, shoulder and ankle injuries before they become big health-care bills. Twenty-five percent of Americans suffer lower back pain over any three-month period, and it’s the top cause of disability around the world, the American Physical Therapy Association reports.

Zarett is known for his fierce focus on care, carefully planning patients' regimens with his staff, and often delivering treatment himself with customary verve. Many of Comcast’s top executives have been patients and are believers in his system.

Steve Burke, a top Comcast executive and marathon runner who now heads NBCUniversal in New York, said his body broke down after running 13 marathons. After he was hired by Comcast in 1998 in Philadelphia, Burke would walk from his Delancey Street home to Zarett’s Rehab on the 500 block of South 19th Street for treatment and a workout, and then stride on to Comcast. Burke described Zarett’s regimen then as anaerobic, muscle strength, aerobic, weights and manual therapy.

"That's Joe's crazy manic focus," said Burke. "There's nothing like what he does in New York."

Zarett doesn’t disagree. “I don’t believe there is a better place in the country with this level of care,” he said recently as he toured his new 10,000-square-foot facility on the third floor of the Comcast Center, with private treatment rooms, weights, big rubber balls and slides. “The model,” he added, “has been to come for rehab and stay for fitness,” which is about 50 percent of his business.

Zarett, who brands himself with a stylized “Z,” is part of a trend among big tech companies to jazz up their campuses with amenities as they compete nationally for software engineers, designers, advertising executives, coders and other specialty professions. The multi-billion-dollar Apple Inc. headquarters in Cupertino, Calif. boasts 1,000 bikes for traveling around the complex and a two-story stone-covered yoga room. Search-engine giant Google doles out massage credits while allowing employees time off to follow their passions.

“Low back pain and neck pain are two of the leading medical spend categories for companies, particularly because of sedentary behavior,” said Jennifer Mahler Gamboa, chief executive officer of Body Dynamics Inc. in Virginia, which operates physical therapy facilities on corporate locations. “It’s a good move for everybody if you can get people active.”

Gamboa said people with neck or back pain should seek treatment within 14 days, which can be hard given the wait times for doctors and physical therapists.

Comcast has been pro-active in recent years in working to control health-care costs. The company has made venture investments in firms such as Accolade, in Plymouth Meeting, which helps employees navigate their health coverage and find high quality care that is also cost-effective. Comcast spends an estimated $1.3 billion a year on health care.

Comcast/NBCUniversal chief medical officer Tanya Benenson said that NBCUniversal has opened a medical clinic near its Rockefeller Center base to make check-ups and other services more convenient for NBCUniversal employees. The clinic is proving to be popular. “It’s like this void, this vacuum,” she said of medical services. “If you provide it, they will come.”

Comcast isn't offering check-ups in its downtown Philadelphia campus, which now includes two Comcast towers. But employees won't have to Uber all over the city or drive to the suburbs for physical therapy.

“Physical therapy is an under-utilized tool to help with pain management and injury management,” Benenson said. In the midst of the current opioid crisis, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended in 2016 that doctors consider non-opioid treatments such as physical therapy for pain relief.

William Strahan, the head of human resources at Comcast, injured his knee falling down at the 69th Street station rushing for a train some years ago. He put off physical therapy for years.

“It was easy to say ‘I have an excuse and I don’t want to do this,’” Strahan said. With Zarett downstairs at the Comcast Center, Strahan now had no reason to put off care any longer. His doctor wrote out a prescription for his knee rehab and Strahan scheduled time at Zarett’s.

“There are some athletes who are trying to get back to peak physical performances. That is not me,” Strahan said, but his knee is improving. He added that by going to Zarett, he hopes to set a tone with employees that “if I can do it, you can do it.”

The venture is a risk for Zarett, 53, a Russian Jewish immigrant who came to Philadelphia with his family with only $500 in 1979. He has almost doubled his square footage to 23,000 square feet from 13,000 square feet on the 500 block of South 19th Street and significantly expanded his staff to 52 exercise physiologists, physical therapists and massage therapists.

He says it took two years to negotiate the contract for the new facility. Zarett’s is located in the Comcast Center’s former gym, which has relocated to the Comcast Technology Center.

While Zarett’s original location has private rooms, Zarett noted that the new facility in the Comcast Center has even more privacy. “Co-workers do not want to be screaming next to other employees when I am twisting them,” he said with a laugh.

As for his relationships with top Comcast executives whom he has treated, Zarett said: "I am not mentioning any names. Comcast is a family, you know. You help one member of the family, they send their next-of-kin." Among those on Zarett's wall of fame are Comcast CEO Brian Roberts, vice chairman Neil Smit and senior vice president Karen Buchholz, with her children.

“We have been asked to open up in Main Line,” Zarett said. "But you know it’s not like opening a McDonald’s. What sets us apart is how hands-on this is. There are many chains out there. The only way for me to insure the quality is that I have to be close. That is why [the Comcast Center] is something I could do.”

Tasha Taylor-Igbanol, 35, a manager of diversity communications, played basketball and volleyball player in high school and suffered for years with a left ankle injury. Playing in a city softball team, this year, she had to wear a brace on it. But then she started twisting it regularly. So she stopped wearing heels.

“My ankle would even give out when I got up from my desk,” she said. Her husband told her this year that she should do something about it. She visited her podiatrist who diagnosed her with tendinitis and recommended physical therapy with Zarett.

“'That’s funny, they are opening in our building,'” she recalled thinking. Zarett’s staff evaluated her and worked both on strengthening her ankle and her lower body.

After several months of treatment, Igbanol said recently that she’s "back in heels and at the end of my treatment plan.”