12:45 PM

Expanded Focus on the Neuroscience of Spinal Cord Injury

In 2009, Billy Hulse, a successful Atlanta-area businessman, sustained a C-2 spinal cord injury after hitting his head in the middle of the night. From that night on, life was never the same. Still, Billy, who passed away in September 2012, credited Shepherd Center for helping him regain some function and extending his life.

Filled with gratitude, he and his wife, Betty, looked for opportunities to give back to the hospital. During their stay, they met Keith Tansey, M.D., Ph.D., the director of spinal cord injury research at Shepherd Center. Dr. Tansey has created a spinal cord injury lab (SCIL) to conduct mechanistic research to learn more about the underlying neurobiology of spinal cord injury in patients who are undergoing rehabilitation. He hopes to find new ways to increase functionality and quality of life for patients – and maybe even cure paralysis someday.

While some early funding allowed him to acquire equipment for the SCI Research Program, he needed more money to expand SCIL.

“Early on, most grant agencies won’t support you until you can collect pilot data proving that your efforts will bring results,” says Dr. Tansey, adding that this process can take decades and neglects the need for staff and supplies to get that pilot data. The Hulses were so impressed with Dr. Tansey’s work that Billy knew he wanted to give to Shepherd Center and help future patients.

The Betty and Billy Hulse Spinal Cord Injury Lab at Shepherd Center was dedicated on Sept. 11, 2012. At the ceremony, The Hulses, center, were surrounded by their friends, who donated to the lab. They are, left to right, Tom and Kathy Weller, Rex and Duvall Fuqua, William Crozer, Beth Holder, Mark Pirrung, Tommy Holder, and Carrie and Page Crozer.

Betty and Billy have lived in Atlanta all of their adult lives, and they have an extended network of friends. Among them are Atlanta philanthropists Tommy and Beth Holder. The Hulses shared the concept behind the SCIL, and the Holders got on board immediately. “Tommy and I were so happy to lend support to Betty and Billy, and also to support Shepherd,” Beth says.

To help kickoff their fundraising efforts, the Holders hosted a reception at their home for 120 of the Hulses’ friends and supporters. Dr. Tansey talked about his group’s research goals. Billy and Betty spoke about the care they received and how investments to expand the research lab could benefit future patients. The Holders also sent out hundreds of appeal letters.

The response was enormous. Their goal was to raise $1 million. They surpassed that amount, raising $1.2 million in only three months.

“There was a pent-up desire to show love and support for Billy and Betty, and this was the way that their friends could do that,” Beth explains. “We had donors from Thomasville, Ga., to Tokyo who were eager to write large checks.”

Betty Hulse was overwhelmed by the response. “The devotion of our friends is so far-reaching,” Betty says. “I’ve never really experienced anything like this. There was so much love and momentum to raise money in Billy’s name to help bring this lab to Shepherd.”

With this seed money, Dr. Tansey and his team are able to hire additional researchers and buy new equipment that will help to secure additional grant funding.

“This is going to allow us to expand the lab – now known as the Betty and Billy Hulse Spinal Cord Injury Lab – in a way that would not have been possible if we were just going grant by grant,” Dr. Tansey says. “We can hire people sooner, and we will collect pilot data faster, which in turn will help us secure additional grants and publish our work faster. This accelerates our scientific endeavor beyond where we would have been in a typical academic environment.” Billy hoped the work done in the new laboratory will yield immediate and long-term results to help improve functionality for patients.

In the meantime, the lab is helping to advance the scientific understanding of the human body’s neurophysiology after injury.

“We give some of the best clinical care there is, and now this lab will increase our contribution,” Dr. Tansey says. “It’s where we believe the future of the field is being defined.”

Billy was proud of what has already been achieved. “It’s a chance to give back to the people at Shepherd who provide such a tremendous service to those of us with catastrophic injuries,” he said earlier this year.

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.