Shepherd Center is mourning the loss of James Shepherd, one of its co-founders.

Shepherd, 68, died Dec. 21 of apparent cardiac arrest, said Kerry Ludlam, a center spokesperson. He, his parents, Harold and Alana Shepherd, and Dr. David Apple co-founded the Buckhead catastrophic-care hospital in 1975 two years after he was paralyzed from the neck down while bodysurfing in Brazil.

They started the center after the family was frustrated with the lack of a top-flight rehabilitation facility in the Southeast.

“This is an enormous loss for Shepherd Center and the community,” Sarah Morrison, PT, MBA, MHA, the center’s president and CEO, said in a news release. “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.”

The center has been recognized as one of the nation’s top hospitals specializing in spinal-cord and brain-injury rehabilitation.

Shepherd, a Buckhead resident, served as the center’s board chair, and was a member of several boards and committees to further education and research to help individuals with disabilities.

“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.”

In an obituary article posted on the center’s website, Apple said, “James was a forward thinker – always with the staff, patients and their families in mind. James had a sense of humor, which endeared him to staff and friends. James was the epitome of one who turned tragedy into triumph.”

He and his family have won numerous awards for their service to the community. In an emailed statement, Georgia Hospital Association President and CEO Earl Rogers said Shepherd was “a legend.”

“This great facility is responsible for improving the way of life of thousands of patients with brain and spinal cord-related illnesses and injuries,” Rogers said. “… 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.

“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.”

Plans for a memorial service are still being completed and will be announced soon. Shepherd is the second member of his family to die in a year. Harold died at 90 in December 2018.

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