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Medical Staff Profile – Gerald Bilsky, M.D.

Q & A with Gerald Bilsky, M.D., Physiatrist, Shepherd Center

Gerald Bilsky, M.D. is a board-certified physiatrist for Shepherd Center’s Acquired Brain Injury and Spinal Cord Injury programs. He joined the medical staff at Shepherd Center in 1998.

Q:  Why did you decide to become a doctor and then specialize in physical medicine and rehabilitation (PM&R)?

A: I decided to become a doctor because I like to help people, and medicine seemed like a career in which I could contribute. I’ve always thought of being a doctor as a noble profession. When I was a kid, I really liked my general practitioner. He and his wife, who was a nurse in his office, were special people. We had a very nice relationship. They always knew whom we were when we were in the office.

As for specializing in PM&R, I was not sure about this at first. I didn’t know much about it when I started medical school. Then, during my first summer after starting medical school, I did an internship in a rehabilitation unit. I had an incredible mentor there, and I still keep in touch with him today. So that was the turning point. I spent that summer not so much doing clinical work, but getting to know patients. Most of them were there the entire time I was there. It was neat to develop relationships with them. I’m a people person. I thrive on that.

Q: Shepherd Center is known for some distinctive approaches to the practice of rehabilitation medicine. What aspects are most professionally rewarding to you and effective in producing excellent patient outcomes?

A: We do some innovative things at Shepherd Center, but Shepherd is special because of the people who work here. It’s a milieu of caring and teamwork. The staff is incredibly dedicated. There’s a caring aspect here that is different than anyplace I’ve ever seen. The technology and interventions are good, but you could use those same technologies and interventions elsewhere and still not get the outcomes that we get because of the people who work here.

Q: At the core of Shepherd Center’s mission is the goal of helping patients rebuild their lives with hope, independence and dignity, advocating for their full inclusion in all aspects of community life. In a practical sense, what does that mean to you in the way you perform your job?

A:  At Shepherd Center, we work to maximize a patient’s potential and ability, and to rebuild lives in the best possible way whatever the circumstances are. We are honest and open. We don’t promise things we can’t deliver. One of the most important things we do is help people accommodate whatever disability they might have and support them in their efforts to be successful. It’s not our definition of success that guides things, but the patient’s definition of success.

Now, obviously if someone is totally unrealistic with complete quadriplegia and is not going to be able to walk again, it’s not in our best interest to tell them they can go back and do tree trimming, for example.  But we want people to appreciate their talents and abilities and maximize those to be successful. That falls back to us as a group of professionals working with those patients. We have to be passionate and caring to reach out to people and meet them wherever they are in the process of rebuilding their lives.

Q:  How do you offer hope to patients at Shepherd?

A:  Rehabilitation therapy is physically and emotionally challenging and exhausting. We have to acknowledge that, not minimize it. We need to embrace that, but we also have to push people. We have to articulate that there are goals to achieve. As they achieve goals, we add new ones. Part of our role is to be a cheerleader.

We have a lot of former patients who are role models for our current patients.  They show what can be accomplished. We have athletic teams sponsored by the Center and we have former patients who are running businesses. We have role models from all facets of life. They are successful in the community. This is a real advantage. Our alumni are willing to give back. That comes, in part, from this milieu they experienced here at Shepherd Center. They learned that we care, and it fosters caring in them and they reach out to our current patients. You don’t see that everywhere.

Q: What are the most promising areas of research to help people with spinal cord and/or brain injuries?

A:  From a cognitive processing standpoint in brain injury, I believe there will be some better medications in the future – either new drugs or modifications of existing drugs.

For major physical innovations, I think there will be a combination of robotic devices and, ultimately, stem cells will be a big deal. We have political and financial roadblocks at this point, but that type of intervention may be the best hope for a true reversal of deficits. Just basic medication interventions won’t be the cure for spinal cord injury that we’re all hoping for. In robotics, the devices will be external or, ultimately, in a true bionic world, an implantable, programmable chip that can substitute for an injured part of the spinal cord or a focal lesion on the brain.

Q: What is the most frequently asked question you get from patients, and how do you answer it?

A:  The most frequent question from spinal cord injury patients is, “When am I going to walk again?” And I answer it honestly. I don’t know. But it gets back to our job, which is to teach patients to learn about and take care of their bodies, to be as independent and functional as possible, and to be as productive in society as possible. If the patient’s condition changes and improves beyond what we expect, then it gives us more things to work on with them. We’re on a journey together.

The underlying theme of questions we encounter from both spinal cord and brain injury patients is coping and adjustment for both the patient and family. The treatment team – the nursing staff and therapists, in particular, because they help these patients in some intimate settings – gets a lot of questions nobody else hears. In answering, we try to help them come to grips with wherever they are and again be a cheerleader to point them in a positive, forward direction. We try to be there and help them pick up the pieces, especially on the bad days.

Q: What have you learned about yourself and others in the process of treating people with spinal cord and/or brain injuries?

A: Life is fragile. Life can change in an instant, often times through no fault of our own. Personally, I am less of a risk taker than I used to be. There are things I am more cautious about and aware of, in general. In the 30 years or so that I’ve been involved with rehabilitation, I’ve matured and appreciate diversity better than I did in my young days. My definition of what is normal is very different than what I probably thought as a college student. My definition of normalcy is very broad now. We’re all in this together.

Interesting Facts:

Experience:  President, Atlanta Rehabilitation Associates; Program director, American Transitional Care-Northside; Medical director of Atlanta Rehabilitation Institute; medical director rehabilitation day program, Emory University Hospital

Physiatry Internship and Residency:  University of Rochester, chief resident

Medical School:  University of Rochester

Undergraduate Degree:  Brown University

Random Facts:

  • Dr. Bilsky is a “chocoholic.” He especially likes M&M’s.
  • He loves sports, especially football and college basketball. He is a Georgia Tech fan.
  • He reads murder mystery and spy novels.
  • Dr. Bilsky likes to play golf and wishes he were better at it.
  • He enjoys collecting memorabilia.
  • His patients see him as regular guy, he says. He connects with all kinds of people.
  • He enjoys spending time with friends and laughing.
  • He admits that he’s not as funny as he likes to think he is, but he adds that he has a decent sense of humor and he uses it in his practice of medicine.

Written by Jane M. Sanders
Photography by Gary Meek

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.