Alana Shepherd: ‘It’s the call you get from hell’

Some people can’t get beyond a tragedy, no matter how hard they try. Others, like Alana Shepherd, use it as a springboard for action.

After getting one of the most devastating calls a parent can get — your child has been in a horrible accident — Shepherd and her husband, Harold, flew down to Brazil to be with their son, James. Shepherd discusses what happened and how the three of them co-founded what’s become a world-class treatment and rehabilitation center for patients with spinal cord and brain injuries. The nonprofit Shepherd Center in Atlanta, started on a shoestring budget in 1975, has grown to $181 million in annual revenue with 152 beds and a staff of 1,600.

Shepherd, 84, still remains active in the center every day. She recently received a lifetime achievement award from Womenetics, a national organization that recognizes women who’ve made a difference and helps develop businesswomen as leaders.

Q: What experiences shaped you early in life?

A: I grew up in Sioux City, Iowa. I loved athletics. In the fifth grade, I could run faster than any of the boys and jump higher, and it made them very angry. I was very competitive.

My brother was a couple of years younger and I could beat him up for years.

My father was a vet for large animals. He would do postmortems on big hogs and cattle. He would hoist them up in the shed and I would press my nose to the screen, which was right above the sink where he was washing and cutting through all of the organs.

It was fascinating. I can remember a hog that had choked to death. His esophagus was crammed full of long, white worms. That experience probably helped me see almost any condition in people nowadays.

Q: Your family moved to Atlanta when you were in the eighth grade. You went to an all-girls’ high school and a women’s junior college. How did that affect you?

A: A girls’ school gives you the utmost confidence in yourself. You’re not distracted by the boys. There’s no competition.

But I wouldn’t do it again if I had a choice and I wouldn’t want my children to do it.

I think the world has changed and opened up to women. I think schools now are giving girls great confidence that they can do anything they want. Girls today are expected to have a career.

Q: You became a homemaker, raising three children while your husband built a road construction business. Then your life changed in 1973.

A: My son James graduated from UGA and then backpacked through Africa. Then he went to Rio de Janeiro.

It’s the call you get from hell. Every family who’s here now says that.

The first thing the people down there said was that James nearly drowned and he couldn’t move his hands. He was in a body surfing accident. The beach had been dredged and the wave tossed him into the bank of the ocean and he broke his neck.

We were on a plane within a few hours. At the hospital, they had him on a ventilator and he was a quadriplegic. We were down there for six weeks before we could get him home.

Q: Then what happened?

A: He was at Piedmont Hospital. They didn’t know what to do. Spinal care is different from other care. They put on a good show and they kept him alive. But more than three months later he weighed 84 pounds from 180. He was a bag of bones.

We knew things were not going right and we were told to go to Denver to Craig Hospital, which specialized in spinal care. There was no place in Atlanta or the southeast.

A friend of ours at the time, Atlanta Falcons owner Rankin Smith, loaned us his plane so we could get James out there.

Q: How did you deal with all the adversity?

A: Not one patient who is here now ever expected to be here.

We didn’t go to pieces or go nuts. We prayed. We were determined we were going to do the best for James every day.

Bonus questions

Q: What happened in Colorado?

A: James walked out five months later with a leg brace and a crutch. It was an incomplete injury. He was paralyzed on one side. He was lucky.

Q: What happened when you returned to Atlanta?

A: We felt very fortunate to have survived all this and had such a good outcome.

We talked with our friends and they said, “Someone ought to start a facility here like the one in Colorado.” That someone became us.

We found Dr. David Apple, an orthopedic surgeon and expert in spinal cord injuries. He said, “I’ll do the medical and you’ll do the rest.”

We raised money from our friends. My husband was a successful businessman and we knew a lot of people who could give. We went to foundations, too. You’ve got to start with small steps and make your way.

We founded a nonprofit spinal center within a wing of another hospital. We started out small with six beds. Three weeks later, we had 12 beds. Then we got to 30 beds.

In 1982, we moved out of that wing to our own facility.

Q: How did that happen?

A: A developer friend owned property on Peachtree near Piedmont Hospital. His granddaughter had a brain injury. The property was appraised at $1.6 million and he sold it to us for $800,000.

Later, we got three other pieces of land at bargain prices because of friendships.

Q: Could you have built this center if you didn’t have friends with money?

A: No. We couldn’t have.

It helped that I’m pretty single-minded. Ooooh, I hate to fail at something. I never raised money before, but I learned. I also had to learn not to hold it against somebody if they didn’t want to give.

The money started coming in and the center took off. We told the Colorado hospital that we were going to pass them. We left them in the dirt long ago.

Q: You decided to leave the people who saved your son in the dirt? In fact, your son is chairman of the Shepherd board.

A: Yes. We decided to beat them at their game. It goes back to my competitive nature.

Q: How did you build the center to 152 beds?

A: After moving to the new facility, we doubled in size to 80 beds in 18 months. The demand was there. That’s what keeps you going. You’re trying to answer it by continuing to expand.

Now patients are from every state and 51 foreign countries. There are 400 outpatients in the building. And we have another facility over on Clairmont for day-program patients with brain injuries.

Q: What’s been your key asset?

A: We have a culture that is very different. Everyone has to be friendly and have eye contact — even the doctors who are trained in medical school to walk along the hallway looking at the baseboard.

The residents who come from Emory University have to learn this too. Everyone has to speak to people in the hall. They’re to be upbeat with a smile on their face.

The culture you have is part of the success. It’s wrong if everybody is walking around and glumly saying, “Oh God, these people are hurt so badly. I can’t stand to deal with that family. They’re just moaning and groaning.”

No! Let them know there’s hope and it’s going to get better.

Also, apologize for any mistake you make immediately and profusely. Eat crow. I have more black feathers sticking out of my mouth than anyone you know.

Q: Any other important lesson?

A: For goodness sakes, tell your children and grandchildren not to dive. Jump into the water.

Our diving injuries every summer are such sad things. They hit a rock or they hit the bottom or they hit somebody. They break their necks and their mothers have to take care of them.

One summer, we had seven young men who dove in the week before school or college started — forever changing their lives and their mothers’ lives.

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Shepherd’s remarks were edited for length and clarity.

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