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Shepherd Center co-founder dies
James Shepherd, co-founder of the Shepherd Center in Atlanta. - photo by Submitted Photo

ATLANTA — James Shepherd, co-founder of the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, died on Dec. 21, 2019, at the age of 68.

“This is an enormous loss for Shepherd Center and the community,” said Sarah Morrison, PT, MBA, MHA, president and CEO of Shepherd Center. “James was a dedicated and passionate advocate for people with disabilities. We will miss seeing him in the halls at Shepherd, during his visits with patients and staff, and most deeply, in our hearts.”

James, along with his parents Alana and the late Harold Shepherd, and Dr. David Apple, founded Shepherd Center after James sustained a paralyzing spinal cord injury in 1973. Frustrated by the lack of state-of-the-art rehabilitation care in the southeastern United States, the family galvanized support among the Atlanta community to open a facility to provide specialized care for people with spinal cord injuries.

In 1975, Shepherd Center began as a six-bed unit operating out of leased space in an Atlanta hospital. While it has grown exponentially in its 45 years, it has always maintained its original goals – to provide a patient- and family-centered approach to rehabilitation, and to encourage patients to look beyond their injuries and embrace their futures, Morrison said.

As chairman of the Board of Directors, James Shepherd led the Center to become the pre-eminent center of excellence for care and research for patients and families experiencing spinal cord, brain injury, multiple sclerosis, spine and chronic pain and other neuromuscular disorders.

“James was a forward thinker – always with the staff, patients and their families in mind,” Apple medical director emeritus and Shepherd Center co-founder, said. “James had a sense of humor, which endeared him to staff and friends. James was the epitome of one who turned tragedy into triumph.”

Throughout the hospital’s history, James worked to improve accessibility and opportunity for people with disabilities. He regularly communicated with community leaders, legislators and the news media to increase public awareness. He also toured groups through Shepherd Center, spoke to community organizations, and made advocates and supporters of the many people he reached. 

James exemplified how dedication and determination can bring change to society.

“For nearly 45 years, James devoted his life to ensuring our clinical teams could take the so-called impossible cases and help people put their lives back together,” Morrison said. “James often said that Shepherd Center was the bridge between ‘I can’t’ and ‘I can.’ Thanks to him, thousands of patients and families found a pathway to independence, hope and dignity.”

James, who set a new standard for living a life that looked beyond injury, said in an interview several years ago: “Shepherd Center is special for a lot of reasons – most of which are the people who work here. There is a culture of intentional caring. It is embracing not just the patient, but the family, from a spiritual to a medical to a physical need. It’s wrapping this continuum of medical care and love around the patient and family. There is love here, and there’s faith and there’s hope.”

James noted that getting to know patients during their stay at Shepherd Center and watching their progress was one of his favorite things to do. 

“I watch them leave here with a smile on their face,” he said. “They are hugging staff members and saying how grateful they are to have been somewhere like this in one of the most horrible times in their lives, and they’re ready to re-engage. It’s moving every day.”

On both the state and national levels, James made tremendous contributions to providing exceptional healthcare for people with spinal cord and brain injuries. His contributions were recognized with numerous awards, including a national award for distinguished public service from the American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation and an honorary doctorate from the University of Georgia – both of which also recognized his parents’ contributions. 

In 2017, the Delta Air Lines Advisory Board on Disability chose James and his parents as the recipients of Delta’s Jay & Hagar Award for servant leadership. In summer 2019, James and Alana were both honored with lifetime achievement awards as part of Atlanta Business Chronicle's Most Admired CEO Awards.

James was a native of Atlanta and a graduate of the Westminster Schools and the University of Georgia. In Atlanta and beyond, he actively served on numerous boards and committees to further education and research to benefit people with disabilities. He served as director of the National Rehabilitation Awareness Foundation, on the Board of Directors of the Georgia Institute of Technology’s Center for Rehabilitation Technology, the Governor’s Spinal Cord and Brain Injury Trust Fund Authority and as a board member of Initiative 2000 (a celebration of the 10th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act). 

James also served on the Steering Committee for the First Presbyterian Church of Atlanta, which led the Interfaith Conference on Disability Awareness. He was an active volunteer in the community, having volunteered on the accessibility advisory committees of MARTA, Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, the Georgia World Congress Center and the Georgia Dome.

“James was committed to doing everything in his power to rebuild the lives of the people in our care,” Morrison said. “There wasn’t a day that went by that you could not feel and see his influence.”

Earl Rogers, president and CEO of Georgia Hospital Association, released a statement Saturday afternoon, Dec. 21, calling Shepherd a "legend."

"James was always willing to help when needed and was a great asset to the Georgia Hospital Association and we were pleased to honor him with a Hospital Hero Award in 2006," Rogers said. "Any time I needed James, he was there and willing to assist. People from all across America know the Shepherd Center and what it represents. It truly is inspirational to hear all the stories of patients whose negative diagnoses about walking again or even living a normal life were changed by the work of the Shepherd Center, all made possible because of James and his family."

Rogers added, "His efforts in the community are second to none. Almost every day I would read an article and see a picture of James giving back by supporting a worthwhile cause.  James had an indomitable spirit. After his injury almost 50 years ago, he grew stronger in his faith. He truly cared about others and did everything in his power for his fellow man and woman."

Details about a memorial service are still being finalized.