Tuesday, May 27, 2014

5/26/14 Atlanta's Shepherd Center

     Welcome to Atlanta Georgia, a sprawling metropolis that is home to over 5 million folks.  This town also happens to be the birthplace and home of one of the most inspiring living testaments to the resilience of the human spirit to be found, The Shepherd Center.

      Founded in August of 1975, its creation was the result of one family's refusal to cave in to adversity, the Shepherd family.

James Shepherd Jr.

     In October of 1973, James Shepherd Jr. was celebrating his graduation from college with his friends in Brazil.  James lost control on a wave and was smashed on the ocean floor, severely damaging his spinal cord.  His friends performed CPR and got him to a local clinic, where doctors figured he was just going to be one more fatality of the brutal Brazilian surf.  

     His parents, Alana and James Shepherd Sr. arrived in Brazil the next day, and insisted that he be given antibiotics for the pneumonia he was developing.  Brazilian doctors were unwilling to work with him further than that, so they returned him to the States. 

     While he was recovering in Atlanta's Piedmont Hospital, two local men who had suffered spinal cord injuries of their own (Clark Harrison and Dave Webb) started to visit him and offer encouragement.  As a result of their friendship, the idea of creating a spinal cord injury treatment facility in Atlanta evolved.  They approached James' parents about helping them, and thus the nucleus of this thriving community was born.

     Angela from public relations, pictured above with one of the center's therapy dogs, served as my guide through the hospital.  Without proper releases I could not take any photographs that included patients or their families, and many of the rehabilitation areas teemed with patients working with staff and volunteers.  So although there are numerous areas that I could not get photos of, there were plenty enough that I did that I can share a feel for the place.  The hallways buzz with wheelchairs and patients moving about between various different departments.  Much thought has gone into the facility, and patient needs are addressed from start to finish.

     First, there is a large Intensive Care Unit that is equipped to handle patients from the onset of their injury.  The sooner rehabilitation begins, even if it is just a half hour or hour a day, the better the long term outcome for the patient.  The centers evolution has included the expansion into the area of traumatic brain injury and stroke recovery - in fact today the patients are about evenly split between brain and spinal cord injury.

     A large heated swimming pool with a wheel-chair ramp occupies a good portion of the first floor, complete with kayaks and many other implements designed to aid in rehab.

     A large gymnasium, again lined with various implements is used both for rehab and competitive events.  This is home to numerous teams representing a number of sports that previous clients and others who are disabled compete on.  A number of teams have competed in the Para-Olympics over the years.

    Numerous large rooms filled with equipment dot the complex - some adapted for children and others for adults.  Over the years many techniques for helping folks have evolved, and with that comes a lot of unique approaches.

     The facility also has a chapel, where it helps tend to the spiritual needs of the clients.  

Chaplain Ben Rose

     Chaplain Ben Rose has been here for ten years after working six years with Hospice.  "Injury cannot define you if you know who you are and who your God is" says Ben.   "I work with a patients existing spiritual tradition with the goal of integrating their experience with their beliefs."

     A separate annex addresses the needs of the families of the patients.  This wing houses families from outside the area for up to a month while their loved ones undergo treatment.  There are also numerous ample areas that allow the families and patients to interact or just relax.

     The "Hidden Garden" lies just outside, with planters arranged at varying heights that meet the patients at whatever level they are at.  A poignant statue in the garden acknowledges the struggle that patients face.

    And the wheelchairs, crutches, canes and various supports come in all shapes and sizes.  Some of these wheelchairs utilize a tube that the patient blows into to run and to navigate.  Other wheel chairs have their own unique touches.

     There are countless folks who are acknowledged on the walls of the hospital for their support in all forms.   But one seems to stand out a bit.  Billi and Bernie Marcus, owners of Home Depot gave the funds for one entire floor of the hospital.  

     This area is devoted to integrating clients back into their homes, schools and community - to helping meet their unforeseen needs as they make the transition back to home, school and work.  All manner of things are addressed from learning to drive again to job training and counseling.

     That founding spirit that was born with the two recovering men helping James Shepherd has not been lost.  Everywhere are testaments to patients that have learned to overcome their disability and become active, productive and content members of society.

     You see it everywhere in the hospital.  Patients are allowed to decorate a ceiling tile with any theme they wish before they graduate from the center, and hundreds of them adorn the ceilings of the various rehabilitation rooms.

     Dry erase boards adorn the walls that allow patients to leave encouraging messages to those that follow.

     There is even a wall that allows staff members to create a ceramic tile bearing a message of hope to those that come here.

     The hospital also spends a large amount of resources and capitol helping soldiers that have been injured in the line of duty. 

     The walls are covered with pictures and stories of those that have entered these walls devastated, but gained the skills to move on to meaningful lives.  

     Many of the alumni have gone on to remarkable accomplishments.  But the spirit of that original nucleus that started this place lives on.  There is an extensive peer support system that has been built up where both previous and present clients help those coming along behind them.  Numerous people remark how important it is to have others that one can talk to who know exactly what thoughts and feelings they are experiencing as a result of what they are going through.

     I wish I could show you images of the patients and their families.  Everywhere faces beam with smiles, laughter and kindness.  The hope that is found here is the lasting sort because it is coupled with viable solutions that address the needs of those that it serves.  This is no mere institution - it is a living legacy to the beauty of the love, resilience and determination that the human spirit is capable of.  

     Today's parting shot is found in a corridor that honors the many people whose support have made this place possible.  

     One thing you will find interwoven throughout all of the center is humor, and among the statues of bronze lining one wall this one stands out.

     It honors the current director of adolescent services, Dr. Herndon Murray.  Among many other things, his plaque credits him with treating 17,146 and 1/2 patients - supposedly his last patient "wasn't all there."  It is clear that he among many others here are loved and revered by tens of thousands of patients that this center has helped.

    Those that created and maintain this sanctuary have my utmost respect and deep admiration.  As the 40th anniversary of this place comes along in another 14 months, I hope they realize that they have touched and inspired many far beyond just the patients that they have helped.  This is a great model for a center that could be developed to help patients and their families that are struggling to overcome a wide variety of neurological problems.  Tomorrow we meet one of the top doctors in the nation that deals with child developmental issues such as autism and epilepsy.

All have a great Tuesday !!

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