James Shepherd, co-founder of the Shepherd Center, died Saturday, Dec. 21, 2019. (Photo courtesy of Shepherd Center)
Photo: Contributed/Contributed
Photo: Contributed/Contributed

Shepherd Center co-founder James Shepherd dies at 68

James Shepherd — who co-founded the Shepherd Center along with his parents, Alana and the late Harold Shepherd, and Dr. David Apple — died early Saturday. He was 68.

Shepherd, an Atlanta native and graduate of the Westminster Schools and the University of Georgia, helped found the center after sustaining a spinal cord injury in 1973 that left him paralyzed.

Frustration at the time over the lack of state-of-the-art rehabilitation care in the Southeast prompted the Shepherd family to gather key support in metro Atlanta that led to the opening of a facility in 1975 to provide specialized care for people with spinal cord injuries.

A press release said he was surrounded by his loved ones at the time of his death. Details about a memorial service were still being finalized Saturday.

“This is an enormous loss for Shepherd Center and the community,” said Sarah Morrison, 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.” 

As chairman of the center’s board of directors, the press release stated, James Shepherd led the center to become a preeminent 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.

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

Throughout the hospital’s history, officials said Shepherd worked to improve accessibility and opportunity for people with disabilities. Shepherd officials said that he regularly communicated with community leaders, legislators and the media to increase public awareness. He also led tour groups through the center, spoke to community organizations and worked to make advocates and donors of the many people he reached.

Shepherd was remembered Saturday for contributions he made here and across the country, providing health care for people with spinal cord and brain injuries. He exemplified how dedication and determination can bring change to society, Shepherd Center officials said in the press release. 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 a effort to increase awareness about people with disabilities, Shepherd served on numerous boards, including the National Rehabilitation Awareness Foundation, Georgia Tech’s Center for Rehabilitation Technology and the Governor’s Spinal Cord and Brain Injury Trust Fund Authority.

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