For Pre-Health Students, Online Articles, Opportunities, Science Articles

The Shepherd Center: Atlanta’s Most Valuable Resource

By Emma Burke

To the casual passerby, the campus of concrete buildings situated on Peachtree Road appears to be just another metropolitan health care complex. However, the miracles performed every day at this catastrophic-care hospital are unique. Each year the Shepherd Center rehabilitates thousands of patients with traumatic brain and spinal cord injuries. Between inpatient, outpatient and day programs, the staff brings hope for a better life to people suffering from some of the most devastating ailments.

"Ekso Bionics" by Ekso Bionics is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

“Ekso Bionics” by Ekso Bionics is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

The Shepherd Center was created by and for Atlanta families. After James Shepherd became a quadriplegic during a bodysurfing accident, his family relocated from Georgia to Colorado so he could receive adequate rehabilitation. They channeled their frustration into a force for good and founded the Shepherd Center two years later. In 1975, the rehabilitation center only had six beds that were being leased from an Atlanta hospital. Today, the Shepherd Center is a 152-bed hospital thanks to the help of generous donors such as Billi Marcus, wife of Home Depot co-founder, Bernie Marcus. This year, the Shepherd Center was ranked the ninth best rehabilitation hospital in the nation by US News and World Report. In one survey, 11.7% of rehabilitation specialists believe that Shepherd is “among [the] best for very challenging patients”. With the fame that the hospital has garnered, many patients are willing to be put on a waiting list, hoping for a chance for care at one of the nation’s premier neurological rehabilitation facilities.

Those in the SHARE program live together for three months while completing therapy that goes beyond what a Veteran’s Affairs hospital offers.

The rapid growth of the Shepherd Center can be attributed to its unique programs and rehabilitation methods. Care plans are specialized according to age, injury, and illness. The Adolescent Program caters to patients ages 12 to 21. Every step of the rehabilitation process is designed with “teenagers’ needs for autonomy, privacy, and control” in mind. Another highly specialized program, the SHARE Military Initiative, is responsible for caring for service men and women who have fought in conflicts post-9/11; one in ten of these returning soldiers suffer from a traumatic brain injury. Those in the SHARE program live together for three months while completing therapy that goes beyond what a Veteran’s Affairs hospital offers. No matter what program they are involved in, all patients at the Shepherd Center work towards the same goal: gaining back their lost independence.

Therapy, outings and a full medical team are still provided, just sans around-the-clock nursing care.

After finishing intensive, many former patients step down into less demanding rehabilitation programs such as Shepard’s  Day and Beyond Therapy Program, which provides a bridge from hospital life to daily living. Shepherd’s day program allows patients to live in an apartment on the campus with one family member. Therapy, outings and a full medical team are still provided, just sans around-the-clock nursing care. Beyond Therapy allows those who have graduated from inpatient programs to continue exercising with Shepherd’s highly specialized equipment and experienced faculty team. Such lengthy stays result in strong bonds between the staff and patients, which can be pivotal in patients’ physical and emotional recovery. The camaraderie built while staying at the hospital does not end upon discharge. Sports teams for former patients and disabled people in the Atlanta area compete under the Shepherd name, including fencing, quad rugby, swimming, bass fishing and track. Annual trips are also popular among rehabilitation graduates. The Adventure Skills Workshop is a summer camp that focuses on outdoor activities such as tubing and water polo. Patients can also travel to Bonaire to scuba dive or Colorado to ski using adaptive equipment.

Current research projects include studying the effects of resistance training on incomplete spinal cord injuries, testing the driving abilities of multiple sclerosis patients, and improving various mobility devices.

To stay on the cutting edge of medical innovation, the hospital houses an internationally acclaimed research center, the Virginia C. Crawford Research Institute. This institute focuses on  brain and spinal cord injuries, strokes, neuromuscular disorders, and multiple sclerosis. Current research projects include studying the effects of resistance training on incomplete spinal cord injuries, testing the driving abilities of multiple sclerosis patients, and improving various mobility devices. Lately, a lot of attention has been given to testing Indego®, a light-weight exoskeleton that can be used to help patients with paraplegia walk. While similar technology has been used before, Indego® distinguishes itself from the competition with its portability and ease of use. The information Shepherd has gathering on this device is helping to bring exoskeletons to the market for more widespread use in daily life.

Thanks to the work of its dedicated nurses, physical therapists, and doctors, the Shepherd Center has become a national leader in neurological care. What originated one family’s personal mission has become a sanctuary for many. Between specialized programs and progressive research, Shepherd proves to be an invaluable resource to the people of Atlanta and the whole nation.