The Paths That Led Us Here
Shepherd Center employees reflect on the unique paths that led them to where they are today.
Whether they started out as patients at Shepherd Center or began on one career path and ended up doing something completely different, each story showcased here highlights the drive and passion these Shepherd employees have to serve patients and families. If you would like to scroll to a specific story, click on one of the names below.
SHARE Military Initiative Peer Support Lead Liaison
Boredom is not in United States Navy veteran Jake Ciccone’s vocabulary. In addition to owning his own dog training company and liquidation firm, he volunteers as a maintenance diver at the Georgia Aquarium and helps others through horticulture therapy.
“I once decided to remodel all the bathrooms in my house because I didn’t have anything else to do!” Ciccone says.
This drive to work toward a goal and give back stems from a couple of places.
First, his parents. Ciccone’s parents met while they were in the Navy. His mom is from the Philippines and got her U.S. citizenship while serving as a Navy Hospital Corps member. His father is a first-generation American whose family came from Italy. He served as a Navy Diver.
“My parents did not have a lot of money at the start, but they had a ton of work ethic,” Ciccone says. “They are the biggest influence on my life.”
The second big influence in Ciccone’s life was the 16 weeks he spent as a client in Shepherd Center’s SHARE Military Initiative, a comprehensive rehabilitation program that delivers world-class treatment at no cost to veterans, service members, and first responders who are dealing with traumatic brain injuries (TBI) and mental health concerns.
At first, he was hesitant to give SHARE a chance, but his long-time friend and fellow veteran, AJ Veal, an outreach coordinator at SHARE, encouraged Ciccone to get evaluated.
“I didn’t realize I even had a TBI until I got evaluated,” Ciccone says. “After leaving the military, I had vision and balance issues. I started falling more often and became angrier. I felt lazy. SHARE helped me get my life back together. They helped me realize I’m a doer — that’s when I feel happiest.”
Ciccone graduated from SHARE in 2020. The confidence he gained as a client helped him create two successful businesses and start putting himself back out in the world. But that wasn’t enough.
“I would talk with my therapist about what purpose means to me,” Ciccone reflects. “When I laid it all out, I understood it involved helping others. Then I thought about who I wanted to help, and the answer was veterans like me.”
Eventually, the SHARE peer support lead liaison position opened up at Shepherd Center. Ciccone applied and started on January 10, 2022. Now, he can pass on what he’s learned through his experiences to others.
“I’m the bridge between our clinicians and the clients. As someone who’s been through it, I normalize what the program is, give them the techniques that worked for me, and support them in any way possible,” Ciccone says.
Sherry Turner, OTR/L
Growing up in Southfield, Michigan, as one of four sisters, Sherry Turner was used to always having a lot of people around.
“My parents’ house was the community house,” Turner shares. “My mom cooks all the time, so it wasn’t rare to have cousins and friends come over. We’re like one big, collective family!”
It was Turner’s mom, an oncology nurse, who had the greatest influence on her life. Turner knew she wanted to work in healthcare, and her mom guided her to look into occupational therapy (OT), which is therapy based on engagement in meaningful activities of daily life, such as self-care skills, education, work, or social interaction.
“After she recommended OT, I went to the career center at my high school and looked it up,” Turner recalls. “I realized she was right and this career was the perfect fit for me!”
She graduated from Western Michigan University with a degree in occupational therapy in 2002, and followed her career prospects to Atlanta, Georgia. Missing her family back home, Turner created a new family in Atlanta through church, hobbies like roller skating, and her work. It was her work family that led her to Shepherd Center.
“At a previous job, I was very close with three of my colleagues. We were all ambitious new graduates,” Turner says. “One of my colleagues did an internship at Shepherd and ended up working there. Next thing I know, another one went to Shepherd, followed by the third colleague!”
Curious about what Shepherd Center was all about, Turner applied for an OT role and visited the hospital for a half-day interview.
“There were two moments that won me over,” Turner says. “When I went to the cafeteria and saw the Shepherd family sitting at a table eating with employees, I could tell the culture was a fit for me. Then, I went to the gym and saw a variety of disciplines collaborating to treat patients, mingling together. It was eye-opening – I knew I needed this job!”
Turner started in May 2006 and has been with Shepherd Center ever since. She now works primarily in two areas: outpatient spinal cord injury rehabilitation and the Upper Extremity Rehabilitation Clinic, a comprehensive rehabilitation therapy and treatment program to improve upper extremity function for people with spinal cord and brain injuries who have limited function in their arms, wrists, and hands.
One person Turner credits for her interest in upper extremity care is Allan Peljovich, M.D., MPH, a Shepherd Center consulting orthopedic surgeon. Dr. Peljovich specializes in tendon and nerve transfer surgeries that can re-animate a muscle and restore function in the arm, wrist, and/or hand.
“Dr. P was a great resource,” Turner says. “Earlier in my career, he took the time to talk with me and teach me. His passion was contagious. After shadowing him, I realized I wanted to learn more!”
Turner began participating in trainings and conferences to learn more, and she is now one of two OTs specializing in upper extremity at Shepherd.
“Our team is specialized to handle the kinds of surgeries and treatments needed for these complex patients with brain and spinal cord injuries,” Turner says. “I am so proud to be part of that.”
Allyson Strauss, CTRS, CCM
Case Manager, Complex Concussion Clinic
As Allyson Strauss reflects on her 14-year career at Shepherd Center, it seems like the stars aligned to get her to where she is today.
“I almost feel like this path was chosen for me — I never would’ve pictured it going this way, but it worked out,” Strauss says.
Today, she is a case manager in Shepherd Center’s Complex Concussion Clinic (CCC), a specialized program that uses an interdisciplinary approach to evaluate and treat individuals with suspected concussions so they can return to their lives. On any given day, Strauss serves as the liaison between the healthcare professionals on each patient’s individual treatment team while overseeing patients’ therapy benefits, coordinating paperwork, answering patient questions, facilitating return to work or school plans, and guiding patients through their treatment plans.
Strauss sums it up this way: “I basically help manage the medical, social, financial, and behavioral needs of our patients in the CCC. It’s all the behind-the-scenes work that people may not realize takes place in healthcare.”
Her path at Shepherd even led her to her husband, Christopher.
“If I hadn’t worked at Shepherd, I don’t know if I would’ve met him!” she says. “We met through a colleague of mine who is a mutual friend and actually introduced us. Fast forward, and we now have two wonderful kids together.”
Working in healthcare runs in Strauss’ family. Her father is a retired physician, and her mom is a retired nurse. Growing up, she’d visit her dad at work, and normal dinner table conversation usually consisted of her parents recounting their days working with patients.
“Healthcare is definitely a big part of our family – we lived and breathed it!” Strauss says.
There were a few stops on Strauss’ path to case management. It started with her interest in recreation therapy while she was a student at Clemson University.
“In the Southeast, if you have anything to do with recreation therapy, you learn about Shepherd Center,” Strauss says. “It has the largest rec therapy department and has a reputation for valuing rec therapists as part of the treatment team. From my time in college, I knew I wanted to work at Shepherd.”
And she did just that. After graduating from Clemson in 2004, she began her career at Shepherd the following year, serving as a recreation therapist in the Spinal Cord Injury Rehabilitation Program. She left Shepherd for a brief period in her late 20s to fulfill a lifelong dream to live out West, but ultimately returned to Atlanta to be close to family. At the time, a recreation therapist/life skills therapist position at Shepherd was open.
“The position introduced me to life skills therapy which inevitably introduced me to case management. I would visit patients’ homes to work on life skills and started helping with additional things like managing appointments or filling out social security disability applications. I didn’t even realize I was interested in case management at the time, but I naturally fell into it!” Strauss says.
She decided to earn her Certified Case Manager (CCM) certification, and she has been doing case management ever since.
“What I love most about case management is helping people,” she explains. “I know I’m contributing to helping someone during a stressful time in their life. It’s challenging but so rewarding.”
Brad Willingham, Ph.D.
Clinical Research Scientist, Shepherd Center's Virginia C. Crawford Research Institute, MS Research
A keen sense of curiosity. An enthusiasm for the unknown. A desire to help people.
For Brad Willingham, Ph.D., these forces drove his career aspirations and led him to begin a career as a clinical research scientist with a focus on multiple sclerosis (MS) at Shepherd Center on November 1, 2021.
In this role, he addresses fundamental scientific questions about treatments and interventions that can improve the lives of people with MS.
Dr. Willingham developed a deep appreciation for Shepherd Center as a young boy, when his uncle, who had a rare neurodegenerative disease, received services through the hospital. So, when his lifelong passion for exercise led him to pursue a master’s in clinical exercise physiology, he knew where to volunteer in his free time.
“During my grad program, I volunteered at Shepherd’s ProMotion Fitness Center as a fitness buddy, helping patients reach their goals,” Dr. Willingham explains. “I loved knowing I was using what I’d learned to help others.”
Volunteering made an impact. After graduating, Dr. Willingham accepted a position as an exercise physiologist in Shepherd Center’s Spinal Cord Injury Rehabilitation Program working alongside physical therapists to create exercise programs for patients.
As he gained experience, his trademark curiosity kicked in. What could be done to make even more practical, meaningful advances in rehabilitation? What strategies could clinicians use to target and treat the underlying causes of mobility impairments he saw every day? To answer those questions scientifically, he realized he needed to pursue a career in research.
Dr. Willingham tapped his mentor and Shepherd Center Vice President of Research and Innovation, Deborah Backus, PT, Ph.D., FACRM, for guidance. She advised pursuing a doctorate; fortunately, he was up for the challenge.
This decision set into motion what he jokingly refers to as “an odyssey, of sorts.”
Throughout the doctoral program, Dr. Willingham stayed in touch with the team at Shepherd by continuing to work as needed and even basing his dissertation on clinical research at the hospital focusing on neuromuscular dysfunction in people with MS. He completed his degree and spent four years working in Washington, D.C., at the National Institutes of Health where he gained advanced scientific training in physiology. Then one fateful day, he received an email from Dr. Backus inviting him to rejoin the team at Shepherd.
Now well into his clinical research role, Dr. Willingham has the opportunity to do what he loves most: using the knowledge he’s gained to help people. One of his most recent projects is a patent request for an innovative system that can extract meaningful information from the millions of data points generated by wearable fitness devices, allowing clinicians to monitor and improve treatment plans for patients remotely, in real-time.
In addition to career milestones, Dr. Willingham and his wife had a personal milestone to celebrate during the past year: the birth of their son, James, who recently turned one.
“Having James gives new meaning to my life – it’s been by far the greatest thing I’ve done,” Dr. Willingham says. “I told Dr. Backus that I’m so happy that not only does James get to be back home in Atlanta around his family, but he also gets to be exposed to our culture at Shepherd Center and everything we do.”
Jackie Haar, MSW, LCSW
Counselor, Andrew C. Carlos Multiple Sclerosis Institute
When patients with multiple sclerosis (MS) visit Shepherd Center’s MS Institute, they receive a wholistic approach to care, focusing on the physical, cognitive, and psychological aspects of their wellbeing. Jackie Haar, the MS counselor in Shepherd Center’s MS Institute, focuses on the psychological piece of the puzzle.
“I provide individual and group counseling to people with MS and their care partners to help them adjust to life with MS,” Haar explains. “We focus on chronic illness and pain and the impact it can have on one’s life, including family, job, and social life. We cover it all.”
This type of focused, specialized care is essential.
“Anxiety and depression are more prevalent for people with MS because of the nature of the illness, as well as the uncertainty of the disease,” Haar explains. “I work on teaching my patients how to address those feelings and cope in a constructive way.”
Haar also facilitates regular groups, including a 12-week psychoeducational series for people who are newly diagnosed called Living Well with MS and an emotional support group for people who have been living with MS and are looking to connect with others who understand their experience.
“My patients are wonderful,” Haar says. “They come from all backgrounds. They all have their own story to tell. I love seeing how empowering it can be when I listen to them and validate what they are experiencing.”
Haar started her position at Shepherd Center on July 26, 2021, after more than 25 years of clinical experience providing individual counseling, group therapy, and resources to adults, couples, and children with various complex medical, developmental, learning, and mental health issues.
Haar’s acute interest in how people overcome adversity began at a young age. Growing up, she struggled with learning challenges that she had to adapt to and overcome. She credits her mom and one special teacher for being key advocates for her.
“They fought for me to make sure I had the appropriate services in the school system,” Haar says. “I had to work hard, but I overcame the challenges. Now I advocate for my patients and teach them to advocate for themselves.”
Her fascination with human behavior grew during high school when she was introduced to sociology, the study of the development, structure, and functioning of human society. She continued her studies at Emory University, majoring in sociology with a minor in psychology, and eventually earned her master’s degree in social work at Washington University in St. Louis.
All of these experiences have led her to Shepherd, where she points to the people as one of the primary reasons she loves working at the hospital.
“I see my work as more meaningful when working with a team of professionals,” Haar says. “All the specialties collaborate, so the patients are being treated as a whole person – mind and body. That approach is really important to me.”
Crispin Del Nero, RN, BS, CRRN, CCRN-K
Lead Nursing Educator for ICU, Comprehensive Rehabilitation Unit, and PRN Resource Staff
Nursing was a second career for Crispin Del Nero. “Until my late twenties, I worked in restaurants and night clubs. With nursing, I decided I wanted to do something to help people get healthy instead of unhealthy!” he jokes.
All jokes aside, when Del Nero dedicates himself to something, he goes all in. He was first introduced to Shepherd Center as a nursing student when he shadowed a nurse during his senior practicum. This nurse worked in the ICU on weekend nights, and once Del Nero saw what she did, he was hooked. He began his nursing career at Shepherd Center in 2009.
“It’s a privilege and a responsibility to take care of people at their most vulnerable,” Del Nero says. “That first year, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, there’s so much to do in one day!’ Slowly, you gain experience, the job gets more manageable, and you understand that you can do it all.”
In 2016, Del Nero had the opportunity to shift gears at work, accepting a role as lead nursing educator across several areas at Shepherd Center, including the ICU and Comprehensive Rehabilitation Unit (CRU). The ICU treats patients that require a higher level of care and closer monitoring. The CRU is a 28-bed unit that serves patients with medical-surgical issues and complex injuries, including pressure injuries, catastrophic injuries requiring amputation, medical complications, and spinal cord and brain injuries.
“Essentially, I’m a teacher. I help orient new nurses and patient care technicians to their roles, helping them integrate into the Shepherd culture and learn skills they did not gain in school,” Del Nero explains. “I also help lead emergency preparedness, teaching CPR and Advanced Cardiac Life Support. We practice mock emergencies once a month with simulation equipment and life-like mannequins that allow employees to practice these rare but high-impact scenarios in a low-risk way.”
Outside of work, Del Nero applies his focus and determination to what he affectionately refers to as his “healthy obsession” — cycling. Like nursing, he did not discover cycling until his late 20s when a friend invited him to go mountain biking, and again, he was hooked. Now he rides almost daily with a tight-knit group of fellow enthusiasts. He has competed and medaled in multiple amateur races, several of which allowed his wife and him to travel to Europe. But if you talk to Del Nero, you’d never know how accomplished he is.
“Being into athletics isn’t part of who I am, but I found out being a thin, dorky guy works well for riding bikes!” he quips. “You try it once, and before you know it, you’re doing it every weekend!”
Whether it’s healthcare or hobbies like cycling, Del Nero’s dedication to his passions comes down to one thing.
“It’s the culture,” he says. “That culture of caring for people as human beings at Shepherd affects how we treat our patients and how we treat each other as colleagues. It’s rewarding to work in an environment like that.”
Gary James, Psy.D.
Neuropsychology Supervisor, Post-Acute Services, and Senior Advisor for APPCN Neuropsychology Fellowship
When kids think about what they want to be when they grow up, roles like doctor, astronaut, or artist usually come to mind. Hailing from an island in the Caribbean (Jamaica), Dr. Gary James says one career option that was never discussed in his family was psychology.
“Psychology wasn’t mentioned as a career path when I was growing up,” Dr. James says. “Believe it or not, I was originally a pre-med chemistry major when I started college in Canada. But I took psychology as an elective and enjoyed it so much that I switched my major after my second year.”
The rest, as they say, is history. Dr. James completed his undergraduate degree at McGill University and a graduate degree at Howard University in Washington, D.C., then did his doctoral work at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. During his time at Baylor, he discovered the specialized field of neuropsychology.
“As a neuropsychologist, my job is to understand the brain/behavior relationship — how the brain affects the way people think and act,” he explains.
At Shepherd Pathways, Shepherd Center’s comprehensive outpatient rehabilitation program for people recovering from brain injury, Dr. James focuses on how brain injury has affected his patients wholistically.
“I’m looking at how their injury affects how they think, feel, and function, and then how we can help that patient and their family overcome those things so they can re-enter the community and get back to life as they’ve known it,” Dr. James says. “We do that via counseling and with neuropsychological testing to assess memory, attention, aspects of language, problem-solving capabilities, and other factors that impact a patient’s ability to function.”
During the 18 years that Dr. James has worked at Pathways, Shepherd Center has evolved and grown, expanding training programs for post-doctoral fellows and students interested in learning how experts at Shepherd approach their fields. And this is where Dr. James’ passion lies. In addition to serving as the senior advisor for the neuropsychology fellowship at Shepherd, he was selected to serve on the Society for Clinical Neuropsychology’s Division 40 Education Advisory Committee, where he will explore variables impacting neuropsychology interest and training from undergraduate programs and beyond.
“I have a strong commitment to training the next generation of neuropsychologists,” he says. “A lot of students don’t know much about neuropsychology until graduate school, and we want to change that! We’re looking at what we can do to demystify the field.”
In addition to improving neuropsychology training as a whole, Dr. James has another mission close to his heart.
“As a field, our providers do not match the demographics we serve. There is an underrepresentation of qualified neuropsychologists of color,” he says. “I want to facilitate greater representation and education for our younger aspiring scholars of color to know that this field exists.”
This commitment to improving his field and advocating for important causes grew from values he learned from his family and, more specifically, from Dr. James’ late mother, Alicia James.
“My mom is definitely the biggest influence on my life — she is my rock,” Dr. James says. “She taught me to persevere no matter what. I would not be where I am in my career without everything she provided me over the years. The journey to get here has not been without challenges, and I have often found myself pulling from that inner voice from my mom as I push through.”
For Dr. James, that feeling of family has kept him at Shepherd for 18 years.
“I am so encouraged when I look at how hard my colleagues work every day to support the patients and families we serve,” he explains. “I feel fulfilled, and it nourishes me to keep going.”
In 2016, Colby Higgins was challenged to change the course of his life and find success in a completely new way.
From 2011 to 2016, Higgins attended the University of North Georgia, earning a bachelor’s degree in design and technology in theater with a focus on stage management. Toward the end of his final semester, he fell from a balcony and sustained an incomplete T-4 level spinal cord injury (SCI). By May, he was a patient in Shepherd Center’s Spinal Cord Injury Rehabilitation Program.
After three months as an inpatient, Colby spent six weeks in the SCI Day Program. He then advanced to Shepherd Center’s Beyond Therapy®, an activity-based therapy program that helps people improve their lifelong health.
Colby saw an exercise physiologist offering a wheelchair spin class and decided to try it.
“I started doing it once a week, and five months later, I got my own racing chair,” Higgins says. “I tried the racing chair out on a track first and then got the gusto to take it out on the road and trail. It was a long progression, but I went from doing a spin class once a week to doing 12 wheelchair races per year and joining Shepherd’s track team, the Spinners.”
When the pandemic hit in 2020, Colby took stock of his life. Pre-pandemic, he had tried to re-enter the theater world, but there were accessibility issues with backstage work.
“When the pandemic started, I decided I had to make a move to do something new. I was so involved with recreational therapy through Shepherd that I thought it was a good fit for something I could pursue as a career,” Higgins says.
He pursued a master’s in recreational therapy in January 2021 while also serving at Shepherd Center as a part-time health screener. For nearly two years, he worked at the welcome desk of the hospital, ensuring COVID-19 policies were followed.
For his master’s program, Higgins needed to complete an internship to receive his Certified Therapeutic Recreation Specialist (CTRS) credential. He is currently interning in Shepherd Center’s SHARE Military Initiative, a program that provides rehabilitation to veterans and first responders who have traumatic brain injuries and co-occurring mental health concerns.
“The SHARE population is something I’ve never worked with before, so I am being challenged. But I’ve learned sticking with your comfort zone isn’t something you should do. That’s what this internship experience is all about, and I’m learning a ton,” Higgins says.
Higgins aims to be a recreational therapist in an environment like Shepherd’s. While his achievements are because of his tenacity, he also received a lot of support along the way.
“I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished, picking myself up after injury, and getting involved in things I’ve never done before. But, it wasn’t just me,” Higgins says. “A lot of people, including my immediate family who I’m really close with, pushed me toward trying something new with my life. And at every turn, the Shepherd staff found a way to prop me up. Whenever I expressed an interest, they were right there to support me and make sure I was successful.”
Written by Damjana Alverson
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.