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Shepherd Center Helps Patients Meet Goal of Returning to Work

Shepherd Center has an impressive track record of assisting its patients with spinal cord and brain injury in their return to work. That’s due to myriad factors – the overall comprehensive care provided by Shepherd Center, an experienced and dedicated vocational staff, and the motivation of the patients themselves.

“The first step is to meet with the patient and find out what they view as barriers,” says Debbie Page, MS, LPC, CCM, vocational case manager at Shepherd Center. “We can then work with them to problem solve to see if we can get around those barriers.”

Next, the vocational staff contacts the employer to get a job description and provides them with education about the employee’s injury. They also discuss possible accommodations that may need to be made and a plan for a gradual return. Page says in most cases, the employers are receptive to having their employee return.

Many people with brain injury who transition to Shepherd Pathways – Shepherd Center’s post-acute rehabilitation program – are given a neuropsychological exam to assess their strengths and weaknesses. This involves a full battery of testing to assess major cognitive domains, such as intellectual function, memory, language and executive functioning. Results from these tests help the team identify areas to work on and help map out a course for returning to work, school and/or driving.

“While these tests identify impairments, they also tell us where a patient’s strengths are,” says psychologist Gary James, director of neuropsychology services at Shepherd Pathways. “The results can tell us how to approach a patient in therapy and help determine how to structure the return-to-work process.”

Patients at Pathways may also gain offsite work experience by volunteering at MedShare, a non-profit organization that redistributes surplus medical supplies and equipment to healthcare facilities in developing countries. Volunteers sort medical supplies into categories based on type and expiration date.

“This activity helps build physical and cognitive endurance by performing simple to complex tasks,” Page says. “It also helps learning to navigate an environment and interact with other people.” Observing how they perform in this setting, she adds, gives the Pathways staff much insight into how patients function and where improvements are needed.

With spinal cord injuries, accessibility is a big factor. Can they get around safely and perform their job duties? Because of Shepherd’s experience, sometimes an obstacle that seems insurmountable to an employer or a patient might actually have a simple fix.

“There is definitely an education piece,” says Jackie Breitenstein, a former transition support coordinator in the Transition Support Program who now manages Shepherd Center’s SHARE Military Initiative. “Employers think it might be expensive to make the necessary changes, but we look at it differently: What can we move, rearrange and so on to make the environment safe and accessible? In many cases we can make subtle, inexpensive changes, and there is great relief on the part of the employer.”

“I don’t know of any other rehabilitation program that does this,” Page adds. “Sometimes our patients are told they may not have a job because employers don’t know what to do and are worried about safety and liability. We get on the phone and try to save that job.”

Read our feature story on two patients who successfully returned to work:  Click here.

Written by Sara Baxter
Photos by Louie Favorite

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.