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Multiple Sclerosis Institute Experts Share a Common Goal

Researchers and therapists work to improve the lives of people with multiple sclerosis.

Deborah Backus and Christine Manella have different jobs in the Andrew C. Carlos Multiple Sclerosis (MS) Institute at Shepherd Center, but they share the same goal – improving the lives of people with multiple sclerosis. Dr. Backus, who is director of multiple sclerosis research, and Manella, who is the therapy manager in the Institute and oversees the Eula C. and Andrew C. Carlos MS Rehabilitation and Wellness Program, say they mutually support each other in their jobs and work well together.

As director of MS research, Dr. Backus helps build a research agenda in the MS Rehabilitation and Wellness Program, with the goal of translating that research into patient care. She began at Shepherd Center in 1989, and has left and returned a few times for teaching appointments and to earn a doctorate in neuroscience. She’s been back at Shepherd since 2004.

In her position, Manella supervises the therapists in the MS and Pain Clinics, and oversees the MS Rehabilitation and Wellness Program. She worked as a staff physical therapist in the Spinal Cord Injury (SCI) Unit from 1995 to 2002.


What is the most challenging aspect of your job?
Getting grant funding for everything we want to do, which is a general challenge in the field of research. It can slow down the pace at which we can progress.

What is the most rewarding aspect?
Being able to translate research into clinical practices that can benefit the patients. I also really like the integrated team approach we have in the MS Wellness Program. The clinicians and therapists are engaged and help define meaningful research questions.

Can you think of a time when you were especially proud of what you did?
I am particularly proud of my role in building a research culture and engaging clinicians in the process with the goal of translating research into patient care – particularly in upper limb and MS rehabilitation and wellness research.

What’s a good day for you?
When I can empower staff or patients to achieve what they want to achieve.

Interesting Facts:


  • Boston University (Bachelor of Science in Physical Therapy)
  • Emory University (Ph.D. in Neuroscience)

Debbie has been married 26 years to her college sweetheart, and they have three children ranging in age from 11 to 19. She had all three while earning her Ph.D.


What is the most challenging aspect of your job?
Negating all of the misinformation that patients might get from the Internet. So much of it is false and/or contradictory. People can be overwhelmed after reading everything. We help them sort through what’s manageable, what’s realistic and what is based on science.

What is the most rewarding aspect?
Showing a client an activity they can do that he or she thought they couldn’t, just by doing it a different way. Many patients with MS close themselves off because they think they can’t be active and they get discouraged.

What is something about the MS Institute that people don't know?
Many people don’t know that we offer the full gamut of services: clinical, medication management, therapy, wellness and education. We give our patients a full range of tools to manage the condition.

Can you think of a time when you were especially proud of what you did?
Two moments: In 2006, when I helped initiate the massage therapy program in the SCI Unit, and in 2012, when we developed the MS Rehabilitation and Wellness Program.

Interesting Facts:


  • University of Connecticut (Bachelor of Science in Allied Health, Major in Physical Therapy; Bachelor of Science in Psychology)
  • Academy of Somatic Healing Arts, Atlanta, Ga. Massage therapy certification in Neuromuscular Therapy, Clinic Sports and Swedish modalities.
  • Manella is certified in massage therapy and is recently completed a Pilates certification.

Christine, who is originally from New York, lives in Atlanta with her husband and son.

Written By Sara Baxter


About Shepherd Center

Shepherd Center provides world-class clinical care, research, and family support for people experiencing the most complex conditions, including spinal cord and brain injuries, multi-trauma, traumatic amputations, stroke, multiple sclerosis, and pain. An elite center recognized as both Spinal Cord Injury and Traumatic Brain Injury Model Systems, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News as one of the nation’s top hospitals for rehabilitation. Shepherd Center treats thousands of patients annually with unmatched expertise and unwavering compassion to help them begin again.