Atlanta, GA,
12:51 PM

Dedication, Innovation and Hard Work Contribute to Success of Recreation Therapy Program

Shepherd Center program shows patients they still have a lot living to do.

In 1978, Barb Leidheiser Shepherd Center’s first recreation therapist, took 12 patients on a canoe trip down Georgia’s Chattahoochee River. She borrowed all the equipment, and some Shepherd Center staff members volunteered their own time to help.

“We were making things up as we went along,” Barb remembers. “It was not a common practice to involve people in activities when they were newly injured. But we got them up and out as soon as we could.”

She calls that first trip “the beginning of a very active outdoor program.”

Shepherd Center now boasts the largest recreation therapy program in the country, with 20 recreation therapists, 11 sports teams, several annual recreation trips and dozens of opportunities to get involved in activities in the community. Shepherd Center also sponsors the Wheelchair Division of the Peachtree Road Race, which attracts wheelchair athletes from around the world. In addition to teaching community reintegration activities, recreation therapists also work in aquatics, art, exercise, horticulture, music and sports to both help patients get back to what they were doing before their injury or to discover new interests.

The program has come a long way in the hospital’s 40-year history, dating back to when David Apple, M.D., the first medical director of Shepherd Center, felt it was so necessary to have recreation therapy as a part of a patient’s rehabilitation that he paid the salary for Barb Leidheiser (now Barb Trader) out of his own pocket.

“We thought that getting the patients out of the hospital and into the community for outings was an integral part of their recovery,” Dr. Apple says.

For 18 months, Barb worked part-time – eight hours a week – taking patients to concerts, the mall, restaurants, Atlanta Braves baseball games and eventually, on bigger outings.

“Everything we did was empowering for the patients,” Barb says. “I had one man tell me: ‘The rest of the therapists taught me how to live. You showed me why I want to live.’”

By the time Barb left Shepherd Center in 1993 to work for the Atlanta Paralympic Organizing Committee, there was a staff of 22 people, including 10 recreation therapists, offering more than 600 contact hours each week. Barb was the first director of the Wheelchair Division of the Peachtree Road Race, which was soon sponsored by Shepherd Center, and attracted more than 110 athletes from around the world. She says Shepherd Center’s involvement in the Peachtree Road Race was a key reason the 1996 Paralympic Games were held in the United States for the first time in history.

“Dr. Apple and the therapists in those early days laid the groundwork for recreation and sports therapy at Shepherd Center,” says Kelly Edens, CRTS, Shepherd Center’s current recreation therapy manager, “and we're excited to be able to build upon that legacy. We are able to do so much with the patients in the center as well as all the individuals within the community.”

Although the program has continued to grow in size and depth, the mission of showing patients life beyond injury has remained the same.

Just ask Curtis Lovejoy. After sustaining a C-7 incomplete spinal cord injury in a car accident in 1986, he thought his days of playing sports were over. He could not have been more wrong.

During his therapy, he was introduced to wheelchair rugby, fencing and swimming. With drive, determination and help from the recreational therapists, Curtis began competing nationally and internationally, earning spots on the U.S. swimming and/or fencing teams in five Paralympic games and earning gold medals in many events. He has already secured a spot on the fencing team for the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro and hopes to once again make the swimming team. He gives all the credit to Shepherd Center.

“All of my success has come through Shepherd Center,” he says. “They are the foundation of who I am today.”

Dr. Apple says the growth of the recreation program is typical of how Shepherd Center always kept patient care at the center of its focus, starting in its earliest days.

“We were considered on the cutting edge,” Dr. Apple says. “At conferences, people would come up to me and ask me what we were doing in terms of recreation therapy. We had a reputation for doing these things that enhance our patients’ quality of life.”

To learn more about sports and recreation therapy at Shepherd Center or to see a schedule of upcoming events, visit

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.