Willie Myers, left, with Ty Tippett (Photo by Isadora Pennington)

Patients at Shepherd Center in Buckhead have survived life-changing incidents: car accidents, strokes, swimming mishaps, sports injuries, combat injuries or a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis (MS). The rehabilitation facility could easily be drab and full of despair, but instead it’s infused with an air of hominess, compassion and, most importantly, hope.

Founded in 1975 by Harold and Alana Shepherd after their son, James, was injured in a surfing accident, Shepherd Center has grown into the largest spinal cord and brain injury rehabilitation center in the world. It also leads in MS research, and the Shepherd Pain Institute provides care and management for those living with chronic pain.

The nonprofit fundraising Shepherd Center Foundation is wrapping up a $20 million capital campaign for a new state-of-the-art MRI, pharmacy and laboratory for the facility, according to J. Tyler “Ty” Tippett, Senior Director for Planned Gifts.

“We receive no government grants, so Shepherd Center relies on the generosity of the community,” Tippett said.

Willie Myers has been on the receiving end of that generosity and the caring attitude that permeates Shepherd. Myers was a member of diplomatic security on assignment in Tel Aviv. On a day off, he went for a swim in the Mediterranean Sea and a wave threw him to the ocean floor. Myers was barely able to speak and had no movement about his waist. That was in September.

Today, Myers has regained movement and his speech, and is progressing daily with his rehabilitation. He sums up his experience at Shepherd succinctly: “This is an awesome place.”

Terrill Estabrook works with a physical therapist at Shepherd Center. (Photo by Isadora Pennington)

Shepherd also supports family members of patients. The center has 84 apartments on its Peachtree Road campus that are offered to families to use free of charge for up to 30 days. Tippett said it allows loved ones to be fully immersed in the rehabilitation process.

“Training of family is just as important as training the patients to adapt and reintegrate,” Tippett said.

Along with physical rehabilitation—such as sessions in the gym and the large, heated indoor pool—Shepherd also teaches patients to become self-sufficient (including cooking and driving) and to use technology. The facility’s tech department helps patients with limited mobility learn to use computers, tablets and cell phones, members of the Buckhead Business Association were told during a tour of Shepherd’s facilities Dec. 3.

In conjunction with Georgia Tech, Shepherd Center is developing new ways to communicate, including the “tongue drive,” a magnetic tongue stud that allows those who have lost the use of their arms and legs to have access to computers or maneuver their wheelchairs.

For those who have sustained injuries during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the SHARE Military Initiative at Shepherd Center is a comprehensive rehabilitation program that focuses on assessment and treatment for servicemen and servicewomen who have sustained mild to moderate traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder.

With patients coming from around the state, the country and the world for treatment at Shepherd, Tippett said the ongoing mission is to provide care and atmosphere of optimism.

“When someone says, ‘Shepherd doesn’t feel like a hospital,’ I know we’re making a difference,” Tippett said.

For more about Shepherd Center, visit shepherd.org.

Collin Kelley

Collin Kelley has been the editor of Atlanta Intown for two decades and has been a journalist and freelance writer for 35 years. He’s also an award-winning poet and novelist.