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A Successful Entrepreneur and Family Man

Nick Kyriakidis, 39, now known as Zorba by his doctor and Iron Man by his kids, used to think that simply being known as chef and restaurateur by his community was enough for him.

A hard-working and successful entrepreneur in Chattanooga, Tenn., Nick was raised in a family of restaurateurs with a passion for cooking Greek food. Seventy-hour workweeks at Niko’s Southside Grill – the restaurant he and his wife Amy co-own – were the norm for Nick, who says he “lived to work.”

That was the old Nick. The new Nick “works to live,” appreciates time with his wife Amy and three young sons more than ever and takes nothing for granted, he says. His metamorphosis began this past spring with swelling in his right leg. Those who have never dealt with a blood clot might not have been as attuned to the signs. But Nick had been there before. He recognized the symptoms.

Nick went to the emergency room at Erlanger Hospital in Chattanooga and was soon in an operating room. No one anticipated what happened next. When he awoke following lengthy vascular surgery, Nick could not feel or move his legs. Doctors suspected a stroke in Nick’s brain, but tests were negative. Eventually, they attributed the paralysis to a spinal column stroke at the T-10 level. Sachin Phade, M.D., Nick’s vascular surgeon and a fellow alumnus at McCallie School in Chattanooga, tirelessly researched rehabilitation options for Nick and concluded that Shepherd Center was the best place to send his patient.

At Shepherd, Nick participated in physical and occupational therapy. He learned daily living skills, wheelchair maneuvering and transfers, and participated in therapeutic recreational activities. “Therapy was very physically demanding,” Nick recalls. “My body would be exhausted at the end of the day. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done physically and mentally, and I used to play sports.”

But Nick pursued his task with vigor, motivated to return home to his family and to work at his restaurant. “Nick embraced rehabilitation incredibly well,” says Gerald Bilsky, M.D., his Shepherd Center physician, who playfully nicknamed him Zorba the Greek, a character in the 1964 film by the same name. “Initially, he intellectualized things, but then he really took it to heart and worked very hard. He realized our staff members were telling him important things he needed to learn. It was just a pleasure to work with Nick.”

Initially overwhelmed, Nick’s outlook began to change as he observed and got to know other patients at Shepherd Center, he says. He began to feel hopeful and then dedicated himself to rehabilitation.

“Early on at Shepherd, I began directing my own care,” Nick says. “I managed my medicines and worked with Dr. Bilsky on reducing or eliminating the meds I didn’t need. I learned to care for myself and gained confidence. That helped me transfer what I learned from the hospital environment to my home and workplace.”

Nick Kyriakidis, 39, and his wife Amy own Niko's Southside Grill in Chattanooga, Tenn. Nick returned to work soon after completing rehabilitation at Shepherd Center. The couple has three sons, who love to go to work with their dad.

It was while Nick was harnessed in Shepherd Center’s Lokomat robotic gait training device that he got his superhero nickname.

“My kids were amazed,” Nick says. “They called me Iron Man. They would help my physical therapist (PT) by holding a soccer ball in front of me while I was on the Lokomat. My PT would tell me to visualize kicking the ball, and it helped me on the Lokomat. The therapists kept varying the routine on the Lokomat, and they got different muscles to fire.”

In time, Nick regained some movement in his toes and some movement and sensation in his left leg. After meeting all of his therapy goals, Nick returned home to undergo physical therapy twice a week. He continued to regain some movement in his left leg and was able to stand for a short time. His sons – Eli, 6, Matthias, 5, and Fisher, 3 – enjoyed helping Nick with exercises to supplement his therapy.

In late June 2012, Nick returned to Atlanta to participate in six weeks of outpatient therapy in Shepherd Center’s Beyond Therapy® program. “I wanted to continue to improve and get stronger,” Nick says. “I hit it hard and kept moving forward.”

And that is exactly what Nick did, according to his therapists. After all, he has a restaurant to run and a family who needs him. Nick’s work ethic and passion for food and family run deep. As a young child, he began cooking with his father, who immigrated to the United States from Greece in 1952. After completing prep school at McCallie in Chattanooga, Nick earned a bachelor’s degree in economics. Drawing upon both his training and passion for food, he entered the restaurant business with his father, an experienced restaurateur, and brother after college. Then in 2007, he made the plunge and started Niko’s Southside Grill, which has become a popular eatery housed in a former meat-packing plant in downtown Chattanooga.

With the support of his family and dedicated staff, Nick returned to work at Niko’s on a part-time basis – 35 hours week – almost immediately after discharging from Shepherd Center in May 2012. He needed to return to get back to his life, he says. Now, he is back in the restaurant’s kitchen – sometimes with his children alongside him – working to develop new menu items. And he’s greeting guests and chatting with them as they dine.

“By the time Nick left Shepherd Center, I was not worried about him going back to work,” says Ginger Perritt, OT, who worked with Nick on cooking skills in an accessible kitchen as part of his therapy. “Nick’s mind was constantly working. His job is so much a part of him. I knew he could handle it because he loves it…. His wife is so supportive, and Nick is so motivated by his sons.”

Dr. Bilsky says he has high expectations for Nick to continue being the successful person he was before his injury. “He is dedicated to doing the right things to get better, and he’s working to improve his physical fitness,” Dr. Bilsky notes.

Nick credits his doctors and medical team – at both Erlanger and Shepherd Center – for giving him excellent care that improved his chances for recovery. He envisions himself walking again someday and considers it a realistic goal. In the meantime, he maintains the positive outlook he developed at Shepherd Center and counts every moment of life as precious.

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.