December 07, 2018

Journey through illness inspired Kedarius Ingram to public health degree

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Kedarius Ingram knows what it’s like to feel hopeless.

When he was sick, he got so tired of trying. But he wanted a better life, and with some help, he kept going. Now, as he prepares to graduate Dec. 15 with a degree in public health from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, he has a message for others who may need to hear it: never give up.

Ingram came to UAB from Evergreen, Alabama, when he graduated from high school. He struggled his first year, but found his footing when he joined the Blazer Male Excellence Network, which gave him the foundation and fellowship he needed to be successful in school. Things were looking up.

Then, in 2015 during his sophomore year, he started feeling bad.

Kedarius IngramKedarius IngramIt began like a cold, with a runny nose, itchy throat and headaches. Then it progressed, into flu-like symptoms with “really bad” migraine-type headaches and body aches. Ingram did not have health insurance. He was going to the emergency room once or twice a month, but the doctors there did not find anything wrong.

“Nobody knows you better than you know yourself and your body,” Ingram said. “I kept telling them ‘hey, something is wrong. I am getting sick.’”

Ingram knew that as a younger teen he had been treated for a condition called fibrous dysplasia, an excessive bone growth tumor, but his understanding was that it did not cause any damage or harm. The tests at the ER seemed normal. Months rolled by, and Ingram kept getting sick.

After a year of sickness and fruitless visits to the emergency room, Ingram decided to stop seeking help.

“I felt like nobody believed me, nobody understood what I was going through,” Ingram said. “I felt like people thought I was lying. It hurt. I just couldn’t take it anymore.”

One month later, he became “the sickest” he had ever been. Just as before, it started like a cold, but this time grew much worse. A friend checked on him, and got help right away. That night in the UAB Hospital Emergency Department, Ingram was placed in the care of Benjamin McGrew, M.D., the ear, nose and throat doctor in the School of Medicine’s Department of Otolaryngology. McGrew was the department’s physician on call and ordered another round of tests, many of which had been performed previously. This time, though, McGrew saw something in the results. Ingram was sent immediately to surgery, and he was treated by McGrew and neurosurgeon Mark Harrigan, M.D., a professor in the Department of Neurosurgery.

It was determined that Ingram had a cholesteatoma, an abnormal, noncancerous skin growth that can develop in the middle section of the ear, behind the eardrum. It can be a birth defect, or more often, caused by repeated middle ear infections. Doctors believed it caused a brain abscess.

Cholesteatomas are uncommon, and complications like brain abscesses caused by cholesteatomas are rare, McGrew said of Ingram’s case. A brain abscess is a serious medical condition and can cause significant problems, including seizures, facial paralysis, confusion, loss of muscle function and more. If left untreated, a brain abscess can be fatal or cause permanent brain damage, because the swelling can disrupt blood and oxygen to the brain, or it could rupture.

“I had to remind myself, ‘You are here for a reason,’” he said. “Because of my experience, what I went through in life pushed me to become the person I am today, so I can move forward in life and help change others’ lives.”

Ingram also learned he did still have fibrous dysplasia.

“It formed another tumor, and that tumor caused several brain cysts and those brain cysts caused several brain infections,” Ingram said. “So, basically, my brain was being overwhelmed with the tumors and the cysts and the infections, and it was excruciating pain. It was a horrible experience, but if it wasn’t for Dr. McGrew saving my life at that time, I literally wouldn’t be here today to be able to graduate this year with a degree in public health.”

After two surgeries, a three-month stay in the hospital, many months of recuperation at home and work to overcome memory loss, Ingram came back to school with a new purpose. Most people fully recover after a brain abscess if it is caught early. On occasion there may be long-term neurological problems such as body function issues, personality changes or seizures. Brain abscesses can occasionally reoccur.

“I had to remind myself, ‘You are here for a reason,’” he said. “Because of my experience, what I went through in life pushed me to become the person I am today, so I can move forward in life and help change others’ lives.”

Ingram credits Chris Jones, director of UAB Student Affairs’ Multicultural and Diversity Programs, and Sharifa Wip, mentor programs coordinator, for helping him stay in school and connecting him with the BMEN network. Many others, he said, also provided tremendous support.

Ingram was a constant source of positive energy and excitement during his time in the BMEN program, says Ingram’s lead mentor in BMEN, UAB alumnus and former Student Government  Association president Garrett Stephens.

“He motivated mentees and fellow mentors alike with his story, and his commitment to attain his degree no matter the obstacles placed in front of him,” Stephens said. “The BMEN program is stronger because of members like Kedarius Ingram.”

After he healed, Ingram decided to pursue his degree in the School of Public Health and study epidemiology, the study of how often diseases occur in different groups of people and why, and hopes to become a doctor himself. He also sought out a job researching brain cancer in a lab at UAB, to learn more.

Read more graduating student stories from UAB News

“I had no clue this was going on until it was almost too late,” Ingram said. “The smallest thing can cause so much damage, permanent damage. I could have lost my life. These experiences have opened my eyes to so many things.”

Now Ingram says he wants to help other people like himself, and be the change he wants to see.

“I didn’t think there was anyone out there who was going help me, that wanted to help me or was willing to help me, and then it took me a while to realize that I have to ask for help,” Ingram said. “I grew up in an environment where as black men, we’re so used to doing things on our own and trying to be the man, trying to show masculinity and show we don’t need help, and we do. We don’t want to acknowledge that and it took me a while to realize that I have to ask for help, and that’s what I did.

“Just continue to fight and keep pushing forward because you only need that one person to help you,” Ingram said.