You’ve probably heard of the Shepherd Center in Atlanta if you’ve been living with spinal cord injury for a while. It’s been recognized as a national leader in spinal cord injury rehabilitation for decades.
Their mission began with a spinal cord injury to James Shepherd in 1973. He was 24-years-old and just out of college at the time. It left him with quadriplegia. The family looked for a rehabilitation facility in Atlanta, but there was nothing for him. So James spent six months in intensive rehabilitation at Craig Hospital in Denver. At the end, he was able to walk while using a cane and a leg brace. (These days, he uses a wheelchair.)
Back home in Atlanta, James, and his parents, Harold and Alana Shepherd, were frustrated by the lack of rehabilitation care options in the Southeast. They didn’t just shake their heads. In fact, they hurled themselves headlong into the daunting task of creating a rehabilitation center from scratch.
They started small—with a six-bed unit operating out of a leased space in a local hospital. Today, the Shepherd Center is a large, multi-building hospital campus with 152 beds and 1,400 employees. They care for almost 1,000 inpatients per year and thousands more in outpatient programs. Their therapy gyms and treatment rooms are state-of the-art-facilities which offer innovative rehabilitation programs for both spinal cord injury and brain injury that are rated among the best in the nation. They conduct about 50 major research projects every year. Shepherd was a founding sponsor of the Paralympics.
Shepherd even has a residential center that provides free temporary housing for families of patients, so they can be near them during rehabilitation. It’s there because they “know the importance of including families in the rehabilitation process,” says James Shepherd.
That’s because his family lived it themselves. And they are still living it.
The Shepherd family remains at the heart of the massive fund-raising and community-support efforts that have built the Center. James is the chairman of the Board. His mother and father continue to raise funds and welcome new patients even today. In fact, the family eats lunch together in the Shepherd cafeteria almost every single day, greeting patients and employees who stop at their table.
James is a thoughtful man with a dry sense of humor. For example, he says: “In some ways, my injury was a gift. It spared me the shallow women of the world. I never bought dinner for someone who didn’t care about me as a person.” Click to watch all his videos.
Here’s how James Shepherd sums it up today:
“The biggest reward is being able to touch the people who come through here. The facility is magnificent; the community has supported us in a grand way. But the ability to touch lives, and have them share with you what that meant to them.”
Thea Flaum is president of the Hill Foundation, and the founder of FacingDisability.com