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Shepherd Center to Celebrate 40th Anniversary of its Founding

As Shepherd Center turns 40, a review of its past reveals five pivotal points in its history.

The moment the wave caught James Shepherd and flung him to the ocean floor changed everything.

The drop was sudden and deep – about three feet. His head tucked under, colliding hard with the sand below. He thought:  I’ll spring off the bottom when the next wave comes. But he couldn’t. Then he thought:  I’ll use my legs to kick off the next wave. Yet his legs wouldn’t move.

In the seconds that followed, James was hurled again and again by tumbling waves, powerless to resist them.

“Soon, I could feel water and sand rushing down my throat,” he says. “That’s when I realized I was probably going to drown. Then, I remember just going to sleep.”

Moments like these arrive with remarkable force. This one came Oct. 21, 1973 in the surf off Rio de Janeiro. It changed not only the life of a 22-year-old on holiday, but also the lives of thousands of others who would later experience unforeseen trauma of their own. That’s because James Shepherd’s moment ultimately gave rise to a new kind of medical center.

Shepherd Center, named for the Shepherd family, is now marking 40 years of providing holistic care and hope for people with life-changing injuries. A look back at its evolution reveals five moments in time that are both pivotal and catalytic. These were so much more than a series of events; they shaped and defined what has become one of the premier specialized healthcare centers in the world.

And they began with a phone call.

DOWNLOAD a timeline of Shepherd Center's history at the link above.

MOMENT ONE:  A Hospital is Born

“A parent never wants to get ‘that’ phone call. Ours came at 11 a.m. on a Sunday morning,” recalls Harold Shepherd, James’ father. “It was James’ friend saying there had been an accident, and James was alive.”

Alive yes, but only barely, which is what Alana and Harold Shepherd discovered when they got to the hospital in Rio de Janeiro the next morning. It was at the Brazilian hospital that doctors determined he was paralyzed from the neck down.

After the arrival of his parents, a winding road of recovery began. Five weeks in the hospital in Brazil. Another 10 weeks at Piedmont Hospital in Atlanta. Six months in rehabilitation at Craig Hospital in Denver.

Incredibly, James walked out of Craig using only a leg brace and a cane. His extraordinary recovery got the Shepherds wondering why their son and others with spinal cord injuries had to travel across the country for high-quality rehabilitation. Why didn’t Atlanta have a hospital that could serve people across the Southeast?

“We all said, ‘Somebody ought to start a hospital,’” recalls Alana Shepherd. “Well, it turns out that somebody was us.”

While the family was well-equipped to mobilize and bring in funding, they needed someone with a medical background and leadership skills to run the hospital.

David Apple, Jr., M.D., was a young orthopedist in private practice in Atlanta, where he also directed the Easter Seals Outpatient Center. He had been thinking about opening an inpatient rehabilitation clinic.

He was just the person the Shepherds were looking for.

“A friend of mine gave the Shepherds my name,” Dr. Apple says. “I met with them and realized it was exactly what I wanted to do. They didn’t even have to sell me. I felt like the perfect opportunity had been dropped in my lap.”

Dr. Apple scouted and found some unused space in a northwest Atlanta hospital. He set up a lease agreement for six beds with the opportunity to expand.

At first, Harold and Alana were opposed to having the Shepherd name on the hospital. But the newly formed board persuaded them that their position in Atlanta, along with local familiarity of James’ story, made the family name a good strategic choice.

The Shepherd Spinal Center was born.

On Aug. 18, 1975, nearly two years after James’ accident, the Shepherd Spinal Center opened its doors with Dr. Apple at its helm as medical director. Orthopedist Herndon Murray, M.D., three therapists and nursing help from the leasing hospital rounded out the staff. Within a week, all six beds were occupied.

MOMENT TWO:  Value-Added Services

From the moment the doors opened, Shepherd Spinal Center’s goal was to get the patient back to a life that was as “normal” as possible. That included being able to go out into the community and take part in hobbies and activities. In the rehabilitation world, an important part of preparing for a new normal life is recreation therapy (RT), or sometimes called “the therapy of having fun again.”

To James and Dr. Apple, an established recreation therapy program was an integral part of recovery. They explored sharing such a position with the leasing hospital, but funds weren’t available. That didn’t stop Dr. Apple: He screened candidates, offered a job to Barb Leidheiser and paid her salary out of his own pocket.

“The difference it made in our treatment was night and day,” Dr. Apple recalls. “We were now able to take patients on outings and activities, and show them what they could still do.”

Since its launch in 1979, the recreation therapy program has blossomed into the largest program of its kinds in the country, with a staff of 20 therapists. Beyond providing reintegration activities, Shepherd’s recreation therapists also help patients get back to what they were doing before their injury, as well as encourage them to explore new interests.

Athletics is one example. Today, Shepherd Center sponsors 13 sports teams in which people with physical disabilities may compete. The Center also supports trips throughout the year for those who enjoy activities such as scuba diving, snow skiing and hunting.

The addition of recreation therapy was the first of what is known as value-added services. Others quickly followed – peer support, vocational rehabilitation, advocacy, assistive technology, chaplaincy, counseling – all of which set Shepherd apart from other rehabilitation hospitals.


In its first year, Shepherd treated more than 200 patients with spinal cord injury. By year five, the hospital was outgrowing its leased space. It would have to have its own home, but where?

To start, Shepherd leadership drew up criteria. The Center must be on a bus line and close to a medical center to easily conduct surgeries. And it had to have room to grow.

The Buckhead area of Atlanta met all the criteria, and it so happened that family friend and land developer Scott Hudgens owned a large parcel of property adjacent to Piedmont Hospital on Peachtree Road. A great believer in the Shepherd family’s vision, he agreed to sell the land to the family at a discounted price. He also made a sizeable donation to the Center.

But there was an obstacle to overcome – securing a Certificate of Need from the state of Georgia.

“We had a lot of opposition,” Alana explains. “The leasing hospital didn’t want us to leave, as they were making money off of us. And there was a general sense that we would be competing with other hospitals, which simply wasn’t true.” After a series of meetings the state approved a Certificate of Need, and plans moved forward.

On April 22, 1982, the doors of 2020 Peachtree Road opened with 40 beds and room to expand the hospital's spinal cord injury rehabilitation program.

“It was like walking into your dream,” Dr. Apple says. “We had wide halls, a huge therapy space, bigger patients rooms – all of the essentials this patient population needed.” He adds that the building brought new credibility for the Center in fundraising, particularly among charitable foundations.

The support did follow – from foundations, as well as generous businesses and individuals. Ten years after the construction of 2020 Peachtree Road, Shepherd opened the Billi Marcus Building – named for the wife of Home Depot chairman Bernie Marcus, donors to the Center. This second wing allowed Shepherd to expand its service line to include a rehabilitation program for people with brain injury, as well its outpatient services and provide space for its Multiple Sclerosis Institute. The hospital’s bed count shot to 100, including a 10-bed Intensive Care Unit.

By this time, the organization had matured into something much bigger than the founders had ever imagined. It seemed appropriate to drop “spinal” from the name since an array of new services was now being offered.

In 1995, the organization’s name was officially changed to Shepherd Center.

It wouldn’t be the last of major changes. In 2007, the hospital nearly doubled in size again with the opening of the Jane Woodruff Pavilion, which increased the number of patient beds from 100 to 120 and provided more therapy gyms and treatment rooms.

The following year, Shepherd Center added a much-needed component – a place for families of patients to stay. The $16 million Irene and George Woodruff Family Residence Center, located next to the hospital, provided 30 days of free housing for families of patients who live more than 60 miles away.

No longer was Shepherd Center a series of rooms; it was now a campus.

MOMENT FOUR:  Validation

Longtime Shepherd staffer Lesley Hudson remembers the day Dr. Apple asked her to take a chance on a long shot.

“He fumbled through his desk and handed me some papers, saying he’d heard about this new program from the government and that I should look into it,” she recalls. “He also told me he suspected the likelihood of us getting it was, ‘probably zero.’” In fact, the hospital had already been turned down before.

Hudson completed the application for Shepherd Center to be designated as a Spinal Cord Injury Model System of Care. Four months later, she was standing inside Dr. Apple’s doorway with a letter in hand.

Shepherd Center was one of 17 hospitals chosen out of 50 applications to be a Model System – a designation that came with a grant of nearly a quarter-million dollars.

“It was relatively unheard of for such a young hospital to receive this designation,” Hudson says. “I knew this was the start of something big.”

It was. The Model System of Care designation for spinal cord injuries is a prestigious hallmark awarded by the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR). To be designated a Model System, a facility must demonstrate that it meets high standards for multidisciplinary care, long-term follow-up and collaborative and site-specific research. The facility must also collect, manage and analyze data on patients during and after treatment – a hard-fast commitment to accountability.

Being named a Model System instantly gave Shepherd Center national credibility. It also laid a foundation on which the Center could build a top-notch research department.

In 1996, the Virginia C. Crawford Research Institute opened, a discovery enterprise made possible by one of the largest individual gifts ever made to Shepherd Center. At the same time, Michael Jones, Ph.D., was named Shepherd’s new research director.

Designation as a Model System would not be a one-time accomplishment. As of 2011, Shepherd Center had earned Model System of Care status for six consecutive grant cycles.

MOMENT FIVE:  Dr. Ulicny Says Yes

Calls from executive recruiters were not uncommon for Gary Ulicny, Ph.D., who in 1994 was the highly regarded director of rehabilitation services at Wake Hospital System in Raleigh, N.C. When the call came about an opportunity to become president of Shepherd Center in Atlanta, his answer was simple: No, thank you.

Dr. Ulicny was happy in his job, his wife (who now had two young boys) was close to her family, and besides, Shepherd Center’s focus was on spinal cord injuries. His interest was in brain injuries.

Six months later, the recruiter called again. Would he at least come and see Shepherd Center? After his visit, he started to consider taking the job.

“I saw the incredible potential for growth,” he says. “Atlanta did not have a leader in brain injury rehabilitation. Also, Mark Johnson, a long time advocate for people with disabilities, was here, and he and I go way back. I was impressed they would hire someone like him to handle advocacy.”

A third reason, he says, was Shepherd Center’s workforce. “Clearly, the hospital was doing well, but it needed a push to the next level,” Dr. Ulicny says. “The employees were looking for a leader. I knew after meeting with staff for two hours that what Shepherd was looking for matched my philosophy and skillset.”

After talking with his family, Dr. Ulicny said yes, becoming Shepherd’s first president and CEO.

Dr. Ulicny moved swiftly to add a number of enhancements to Shepherd Center’s provision of care. He streamlined management to make the hospital run more efficiently, saving money and sharpening the focus on patient care. He also saw an opportunity for the hospital to expand, and he took it. And it wasn’t too much of a leap: Shepherd Center was already treating some patients who had both spinal cord and brain injuries.

“The literature shows that about 55 percent of high-level quadriplegics also have a brain injury,” says Donald P. Leslie, M.D. “So it seemed to be a natural progression.” Dr. Leslie, who had been at Shepherd Center since 1983, became medical director of the Acquired Brain Injury (ABI) Unit when it opened in 1994.

The ABI Unit started out slowly at first, but soon ramped up to full capacity all the time. “The biggest thing was building up the staff,” says Dr. Leslie, who is now the medical director of Shepherd Center.. “The training and level of expertise needed is a little different when dealing with brain injuries. There are a lot of behavioral issues that come with brain injuries that the staff has to handle.”

These pivotal moments are not isolated; they are joined by many others that shaped Shepherd Center’s 40-year evolution.

Today, Shepherd is a 152-bed facility that serves patients from all 50 states and 62 countries. The Shepherd family remains highly involved. James is chairman of the board, a position he’s had since day one. Alana is the board’s recording secretary, and Harold also continues to serve on the board. Dr. Apple, who retired in 2005, is medical director emeritus, and also a board member.

The Center has several hallmarks that remain unchanged: The family environment. The positive atmosphere. The focus on the best patient care possible.

“We have a culture here that is different from any other hospital, and it’s by design and it’s going to continue,” Alana says. “It’s upbeat, uplifting, with an attitude of ‘what’s happened has happened, we’re going to move forward from here, and we’re going to get you going to the best of your abilities and ours.’”

When James was treated in the Rio de Janeiro hospital, he came across an American doctor who was on an exchange program in the hospital. He told James that he was going to be OK.

“That single remark kept me fighting,” James recalls. “If you take the hope out of a room, you lose the desire to fight. What we have tried to do for our patients all these years is to keep that hope alive.”

And they’ve done just that – one moment at a time.

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.