More MS news articles for Aug 2001

Making a difference

Shepherd Center proves there's life after injury

Tue, Aug 14, 2001
News Staff Writer

Brunswick resident Steve Oldaker has a hospital to thank for his successful career in computers.

"It was the best thing I ever did," Oldaker said of his decision to attend the Shepherd Center, a catastrophic care hospital in Atlanta, after a car accident left him unable to use his arms and legs.

After rehabilitation, he enrolled in the hospital's job training program and learned to use computers. He is now a computer programmer at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center.

"It resulted in a great career, where I can do a lot of things I could never do," he said.

The Shepherd Center is different from most hospitals. It is a catastrophic care hospital -- it specializes in the treatment of brain injury, which often coincides with spinal chord injury, and other neurological illnesses such as multiple sclerosis, post-polio syndrome, Lou Gehrig's disease, transverse myelitis and Guillain-Barré syndrome.

Its most distinguishing expertise, however, lies in its emphasis on returning patients to the highest level of functioning possible.

"There's not another catastrophic care hospital in the county that provides the level of care we do," said hospital founder Alana Shepherd, who started the hospital after her son, James Shepherd, suffered a spinal chord injury while surfing in Brazil in 1973.

Mrs. Shepherd and her husband, Harold, were frustrated by the lack of state-of-the-art treatment in the Southeast for patients with their son's brand of injuries.

After James Shepherd recovered in a hospital in Denver, the Shepherds set out to bring something of comparable quality to the Southeast.

"The first five years were a struggle," said David Apple, the Shepherd Center medical director and the center's first physician. "We spent so much time trying to get people to realize there was a place to go for rehabilitation and realize what could be done.

"Before we opened the center in 1975, most patients with those kinds of injuries went to a nursing home and ended up dying from complications. Now that hardly ever happens."

With community support and financial backing, the center opened in 1975 as a six-bed unit operating out of a leased space in an Atlanta hospital. In 1982, it expanded to a free-standing 40-bed facility. In 1992, it opened the Billi Marcus building, a $23 million addition that doubled the center's size and expanded its services.

The Shepherds own a home on Sea Island, and they were recently there to gather with other Sea Island residents who had donated funds to the center in the past. They have aspirations for more growth for the center, including expanding its post-rehabilitation care to include long-term living arrangements.

"We always have some space needs -- our waiting list is always long," Mrs. Shepherd said. "We have a long-term residential living center going up in Decatur. It's for patients who come in who don't have families, and no place to go. That finishes next year."

Brunswick resident Kimsie Daniels -- who owns both Brunswick Manhattan Subs and is opening a Japanese restaurant downtown -- said his stay at the Shepherd Center, after a work incident that left him paralyzed from the chest down, taught him there was life after his injury.

"It was a battle. You have to work on things and learn new ways to be independent," Daniels said. "If I wouldn't have gone to Shepherd, I would be lost. They teach you how to deal and cope with the injury."

Daniels said one of the most helpful aspects of his stay was training with weights. This is part of the center's belief that recreational activity provides more benefits than just the physical.

"What it's all about to us is getting a patient back into the community and participating instead of staying at home, afraid to go out," Apple said. "We found out that one of the key ways of doing that is to find out what they like to do recreationally -- do they like to hunt or fish or sail -- and help them do that."

Part of the hospital's philosophy is using peer support and example to motivate patients to become independent.

"If I go to a doctor and say, 'You'll be able to fish or water ski,' they'd say, 'Well, you're walking around, you can say that,'" Apple said. "But if you have another patient that sits next to you everyday doing the same exercises and you see them on outings and they're able to do these things, then all of the sudden these light bulbs go on and you think, 'I can do that, too.'"

James Shepherd, who often visits patients in the center offering advice stemming from his own experiences, says peer support and understanding are the best therapy.

"I've had several patients tell me that [help from people in the same situation] made a difference," he said. "At the center, they can't just look at a doctor and say, 'You don't know what I'm going through,' because we do."