Atlanta, GA,
10:37 AM

Shepherd Center’s Vocational Services Department Helps Patients Get Back to Work

October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month.

It’s a Wednesday morning at Shepherd Pathways, Shepherd Center’s post-acute brain injury rehabilitation program, and vocational case manager Shelby King, MS, CRC, is overseeing a group of clients heading off to volunteer at MedShare – a nonprofit organization in Decatur, Georgia that distributes surplus medical supplies to healthcare facilities in developing countries.

There they will spend the next two hours sorting and packaging hundreds of different kinds of medical supplies, all while practicing endurance, problem solving, decision making, finger dexterity and a host of other skills that may have been compromised due to their brain injury.

They are also practicing valuable skills they may need when they return to work.

This is just one of the ways Shepherd Center helps patients get back to work. Vocational Services – which along with King also includes Debbie Page, MS, LPC, CCM, vocational case manager at Shepherd Center’s main campus – helps patients identify the challenges they may have in returning to work, practice problem solving and connect them to available resources in their communities.

“My mission is to let them know they have a future,” says Page, who works with the general patient population at Shepherd Center, including those with spinal cord injuries, brain injuries and multiple sclerosis. “A lot of times they think they can’t return to their jobs. But in many cases, they can.”

Doctors must first refer patients to vocational services. After that happens, King and Page get to work. They meet with patients to identify their goals, and come up with a plan to achieve those goals. They also look at job descriptions and discuss the challenges they may face – physical, cognitive or both – in doing those jobs and if possible, help identify strategies to work around those deficits.

For those with brain injuries, working at MedShare can be very helpful.

“It’s a good way to see how they do in a functional environment,” says King. “I observe them when they are working to identify any issues they are struggling with, and then we work with them when they return to Pathways.”

She remembers one client who wanted to return to her job as a receptionist. King helped her practice taking calls and setting up appointments in the computer. For another client with word recall problems, King visited her workplace, and identified a place where she could hang a list of words near her computer to help her. She also got the client set up with word recognition software.

“So much of my job depends upon their injury,” King says, “and what they can do and what their goals are. Usually no one client is the same.”

One resource Page relies on heavily is the vocational rehabilitation services office in the patient’s home state. These government organizations help people with disabilities find and/or maintain a job by providing adaptive equipment, job training and other assistance. Page puts clients in touch with the local office as soon as she can.

“Most people don’t know these organizations exist,” she says. “And every state has one.”

When former patients are ready to return to work, the key is to get them back gradually to help build endurance, starting one day a week for a few hours, then a few days a week, and so on. Most employers require a doctor’s sign off before they will allow the employee back on the job, and Page coordinates all of that.

King and Page also utilize role playing to help clients with interviewing or talking to an employer about returning to work and asking for any necessary accommodations.

Page had one client with a spinal cord injury who she helped negotiate a gradual return, starting with working from home.

“We role played how to speak to her employer to get them to understand what that meant.” Page says she checked in every week and they gradually increased her hours. Then she had a setback.

“She developed nerve pain which is generally an indication that you need to slow down,” Page says. “So we pulled back her hours. She got back on track and she’s now returned to her job fulltime.”

There is always the possibility that some clients will not be able to return to the same job they held before their injury, and King and Page are ready for that reality as well.

“If they can’t return to their jobs, we help them find alternatives,” King says. “We explore other options, including re-training for a different job.”

What is nice for clients is that Shepherd Center’s vocational services is available to them no matter how long ago they left Shepherd Center.

“People call me years after they were discharged if problems arise,” Page says. “We are always here to help.”

To contact Shepherd Center’s Vocational Services Department, call Debbie Page 404-350-7588 or email

To make a gift to support vocation services, 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.