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Intensive Walking Program Gives Hope to People with Mobility Impairments

Shepherd Step offers treatment for people with incomplete spinal cord injury, brain injury and neuromuscular disorders.

Cris Nelson was nearly finished undergoing a physical exam at his doctor’s office when a nurse drawing his blood hit a nerve with the needle. He lost consciousness and fell face-first off the exam table. Cris, 52, fractured his spine and broke his ring finger and nose.

“It was a terrible day at the doctor,” said Cris, a husband and father of two from Covington, Ga., who worked as a driver for Frito-Lay for 19 years before his injury.

He spent two months as an inpatient at Shepherd Center in late 2012 and a couple of months as an outpatient in early 2013.

“My arms in the beginning were paralyzed,” he recalled. “My fingers were sort of drawn in toward my palms on both hands, and my legs were paralyzed. In the beginning, I had no sensation.”

But with a sense of resolve, a positive attitude and hope, Cris wanted to take on more therapy to recover as much function as possible. “I’m about moving on with my life and not going into depression mode,” he said. “I guess the biggest thing is, I really miss my old life. I’ve got a big place that I love to take care of. I want to get back to whatever my new normal is.”

It was about that time that Cris heard about Shepherd Center’s intensive walking program called Shepherd Step. It’s a research-driven program designed for people with incomplete spinal cord injury, acquired brain injury and neuromuscular disorders. Participants must meet certain admission criteria. The goal is to return people to their highest possible functional level of walking.

“When I first went in, I was not walking, and when I left, I was able to walk with a walker and able to stand and balance,” he explained. “I can do a lot that I was not able to do before.”

Shepherd Step is staffed with therapists who have undergone specialized training to deliver walking interventions, including body-weight supported locomotor training with either manual or robotic assistance.

The program emphasizes the benefits of locomotor training, which clinicians believe can prompt the nervous system to relearn standing and stepping through repetitive motion and stimulation. Potential outcomes include improved quality of walking; an increased walking speed, increased walking endurance and decreased use of walking assistive devices.

There is no denying that Cris has come a long way since fracturing his C-5 and-6 vertebrae and injuring his spinal cord in October 2012. His core strength and endurance grew while in Shepherd Step, where his wife Debbie brought him three times a week.

 “I walked with the walkers, and therapists helped me walk with crutches that fit on your arms,” Cris recalled. “They worked with me a lot on balance and confidence. Now, my arms work really well. My right hand is open all the way. I’ve sort of got some of my manhood back.

“I have parallel bars in my garage that I can walk on without assistance,” he added. “I can get in and out of a wheelchair without a lot of assistance. I get a lot of my strength from the Lord, and I’ve got one heck of a caregiver who gets me moving every day. My wife keeps me going forward. I’ve come a long way.”

Shepherd Step is funded by most insurance programs, with several treatments available from physical therapists and technicians.

“Patients have a variety of injuries, be it MS, stroke, brain or spinal cord injury,” said physical therapist Kristen Casperson, who works in the Shepherd Step program. “We run two manual treadmills and a robotics-assisted gait training device called a Lokomat and see six or seven patients on each piece of equipment daily. So we see an average of 20 patients a day, five days a week.”

Casperson, who has been a physical therapist at Shepherd for seven years, says Step is tailored to fit the needs and abilities of each patient.

“We also do over-ground walking training in addition to using the treadmill,” she explained. “Depending upon each patient’s individual needs, we can use bracing or electrical stimulation or various other assistive devices. Since the program is tailored to meet each patient’s end goals, it could mean anything from walking at home with a walker, walking with family for exercise, or walking full-time in the community with or without assistive devices.”

For detailed information about criteria for participating in Shepherd Step or to schedule an evaluation, visit or contact Velma Moore at 404-350-3102.

Written by Matt Winkeljohn
Photos 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.