As a continuation of the partnership between the St. Louis Regional Health Commission (RHC) and Humans of St. Louis, Demaris Ridgell, Patient Advisory Board member and community advocate, shares his experiences accessing care. Read Demaris’ story below and click here for additional RHC and Humans of St. Louis stories.
“There are just so many barriers and obstacles under-resourced communities are faced with. That’s why access and equity speak volumes.”Demaris Ridgell, RHC Patient Advisory Board Member
“My health journey took a bad turn in 2014 when I almost died. I didn’t know I had asthma, but I had an attack and coded in front of my apartment complex. I’ll never forget that day. It was the scariest thing. It started with shortness of breath. I was coughing. Next thing I knew, I could hardly catch my breath. Good thing my neighbor was there. She was like, ‘Demaris, are you okay? Are you OKAY?’ I was like, ‘I. Can’t. Breath.’ She started screaming and panicking, ‘Call 911, please!’ I had never had an asthma attack, but I’d seen people have them. So I ran from my kitchen to the outside looking for help because I thought I was dying.
Paramedics got there quickly and all I remember is laying in the back of the ambulance, my neighbors had come outside, and my sister was screaming hysterically. Mind you, I live in North County in the Normandy area and, apparently, there had been no emergency room beds at DePaul Hospital that day. So I woke up in St. Clare Hospital in Fenton, which turned out to be one of the best hospital stays ever. I know it sounds crazy! I was there fighting for my life. When I woke up, I looked around like, ‘Wait a minute. Is that a heart monitor?’ And I had to be intubated, so I had a tube down my throat. Of course, all these wild things were going through my mind. I was trying not to panic. But I went from being a fairly healthy man to hanging on and clinging for my life.”
“Nurses took the tube out a couple of days later and told me I had acute respiratory failure which caused my asthma attack. I had just turned 41. As it relates to this story, I had no insurance and I’m very grateful I was able to be seen. Thus began the journey when I met Rosetta Keeton, a patient advocate for the St. Louis Regional Health Commission (RHC). I had follow-up appointments with the North Central Community Health Center in Pine Lawn and she was there doing a seminar, trying to let people know about some of the things the RHC was doing by getting the information out.
I happened to walk past the conference room she was in and said, ‘Can I get a flier?’ She said, ‘Sure, young man.’ We started talking and I reached out to her about a week later. She had another conference not too long after. I started passing out fliers for her and here I am today, eight years later, with Gateway to Better Health Insurance. Wow! What can I say about the RHC? When I tell you I had a lot going on, they helped me with smoking cessation, weight loss, and nutrition classes.
It’s sad that I almost had to lose my life to find out what was wrong. Typically, a lot of African American men don’t like going to hospitals and I was one of them. When they started running tests on me, I had a lot of health issues going on. Well, Mrs. Keeton showed me the paperwork to fill out to get insurance. Prior to that, I had no primary care physician. I hadn’t been to the dentist. None of that. All these things were under that umbrella when I signed up. And I never knew that all these things were available.”
“I know it sounds crazy, but going around without insurance was just a way of life. I’d eat halfway right. Drink a lot of water. I was the typical guy who thought, ‘I’ll be okay. Take a couple of aspirin or Tylenol. The pain will go away.’ How ignorant was I not knowing what was going on in my body, knowing I could continue this harmful lifestyle not knowing what was gonna happen?
We think of people who drink and use drugs as unhealthy, but what about not eating right, not exercising, and stress? I didn’t realize the immense problems that could occur: high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes — a lot of issues I was experiencing. While I was off work and unemployed, there was a lot going on with my children. Stress levels were so high that I was a stroke waiting to happen.
That’s why I’m so grateful to the RHC for presenting programs to me, like stress management classes. There was just so much available, so when I found out, I took full advantage: nutrition classes, smoking cessation classes, I needed glasses and was able to get those, I got to the dentist and had fillings replaced from 20 years ago. There was just so much I had offered to me and everyone was so kind and loving. It wasn’t, ‘Oh, no, look at this guy. Look at all he needs.’ They were so willing to help.
What I’ve done since then is spread the word in North County to let African American men, especially, know that there is help. Oftentimes, we don’t open the door. When I peeked in to see Mrs. Keeton in that room that day, I asked what was going on, but I thought, ‘That doesn’t concern me.’ Oh, how it did concern me. I’m so glad I stopped. Sometimes there’s that apprehension that nobody really cares or I’ll be okay. And that’s when the strokes, the heart attacks, the nervous breakdowns, and a plethora of things happen to us in our community because of poor health.”
“When you were in the hospital from your asthma attack, who else was affected?”
“My mother is the dearest person to me. And when she found out I was in the ICU, she was 85 years old. She actually had to be taken to the hospital the same night. That really woke me up because these are things that could have been avoided by me going to a doctor’s appointment and getting a checkup. I’m the only boy and the youngest of six. And, yes, I am her baby boy. Knowing she was in the hospital shook me to my core. I knew I had to do something to change my life to make better decisions as it related to my health — mentally, physically, emotionally — across the board.
My children were also wondering, ‘Is Daddy gonna die?’ I could hear them crying when I was laying there. Them seeing me in that state could have been prevented. Now I live a very healthy lifestyle. I eat right and exercise and don’t let anything bother me anymore… Except for gas prices.
My job at the time was fairly lenient, but I was out for six to eight weeks. I had to go to a breathing specialist. I was on five different medications. And it got to a point where I was afraid of going outside. It was traumatic. I’ve never been shot at or anything, so this was the closest to death I’ve ever been in my life. To be lying on a stretcher and wake up the next day with all these tubes connected to you? I was like, ‘What happened?’”
“Once I got better, I was like a kid with a new toy who wanted to show it to everybody. So now I let everybody know, ‘There is help. There are programs and people that really care about you in a climate where love and compassion aren’t regularly seen.’ When they found out, they also became more health conscious. Just to see the smile on a person who’s able to get their teeth cleaned or get a tooth pulled — oh my goodness.
Between ages 30 to 50, a lot of gentlemen are working temporary or part-time jobs that don’t offer health insurance. Like, ‘Hey, in 30, 60, 90 days, or in six months, there’s a possibility you could get hired.’ But a lot of them never get hired, so they didn’t have access to healthcare. Then, maybe they try to go to some clinic, but it’s hard to get an appointment and that’s discouraging. So they continue that lifestyle of not getting seen by a physician which, in turn, results in strokes or heart attacks or diabetic comas. So many unpleasant stories for those who don’t know there is healthcare out there.
I’m in the community quite a bit and the numbers around mental health are staggering. Bipolar, schizophrenia, manic depression. Depression is real. Just talking to young African American men, feelings of hopelessness loom large in the community. Many have come from such strained backgrounds: single-parent homes; no-parent homes; foster care system; being abused mentally, physically, and some sexually — they feel like there’s no alternative but to maybe do drugs or drink it away. Or, ‘Hey, maybe if I commit a crime, I’ll get arrested and have somewhere to go.’ There are a lot of unhoused who have just given up. When you feel like nobody cares, that takes a psychological effect on anybody. So I do as much as I can to try to inform them: ‘Listen, I’m not walkin’ in your shoes. But I can identify with many of the things you’re goin’ though.’”
“I’m known in the St. Louis community as Brother D. They call me the Hood Paster and the streets are my pulpits. What you don’t say to someone hurts them. But if you walk past someone, they could be suicidal and if you don’t say something to them, that could hurt them. I have a big mouth and I’m not afraid. So I’ll say, ‘Hey, man. What’s goin’ on? You doin’ alright?’ When they drop their heads, that’s my signal. ‘Are you looking for a job? Are you hungry?’
I’ve been blessed to know so many organizations I volunteer for that there are avenues I can give people resources to. Whatever it is — the basic needs we sometimes take for granted: food, clothing, shelter. And I’m the type who will take them to the resources, cause a lot of times, they’re afraid to go. They’re embarrassed. They’re intimidated. A lot are functioning but illiterate. They don’t know how to fill out an application, so that’s a deterrent. So I go to help them fill those out too.”
One of my favorite slogans is, ‘People don’t care how much you know until you show how much you care.’ That’s my mantra in life and I live by it. We’re better together. Each one of us was put here for a plan and a purpose. ‘WWJD — what would Jesus do?’ Jesus would not let that person go by without letting them know that the RHC doesn’t exist. It does. There is help.”Demaris Ridgell, RHC Patient Advisory Board Member
“Can you walk me through a time you went with someone to get them the services they needed?”
“It’s almost a daily occurrence for Brother D. That is my passion. I ramped up my efforts after the murder of Michael Brown. I was with the organization Save Our Sons, with the Urban League, and I helped spearhead a lot of grassroots projects to focus on the community. Young men were dying. They are still. But the numbers have dropped considerably from 2015. I have a 28-year-old son and a 21-year-old son. And look at young men I meet the same way I look at my sons. A lot of them don’t have fathers. They grew up feeling like no one cared. I’ll be on the MetroLink and when these young men see guys who know me, like, ‘Here he comes. Here comes Brother D!’ it made me feel so good because it wasn’t a look of disdain, like, ‘Oh my God, here comes this guy.’ No, people welcome me with open arms.
I’ve volunteered with The Salvation Army, United Way, African Diaspora Council, YWCA, and YMCA. If there’s anywhere in St. Louis — MERS Goodwill — I have volunteered. I have so many resources and have built such great relationships with people, when I go through my Rolodex, if someone needs this or that, I get on it. Give a person a call and all of a sudden it’s, ‘Hey, man. Send ’em down,’ whether it’s housing, employment, or health-related.
The RHC has anger management classes and conflict resolution classes. With all the shootings and unrest in our country, when young men and ladies can see they don’t have to get a gun, because someone does care, ‘Well, let’s talk about it before you hurt someone or yourself.’ I remember when I was in my late teens and early 20s, that was at the height of the crack epidemic with so much gang violence. So many young folks were rebelling and there were mentors who told us we didn’t have to go that route. Here I am, 30 years later, trying to advocate out in the community every day. It’s a lifestyle. I don’t have a quota for the day. If I see the need, I just jump in and do what God has gifted me to do.
My mom and I were shopping over the weekend together. And when someone calls you by your government name, that’s when you know somebody KNOWS you. Not once, not twice, but on three visits to Sam’s Club, I saw three different gentlemen who I coached in football from when they were young and they all recognized me. ‘Demaris! Brother D!’
One was in his senior year at Saint Louis University and I was like, ‘Wait, you were the little…?’ ‘Yeah! And you told me that I wasn’t stupid and I told you I wanted to become an engineer.’ ‘Yeah, I saw you were talented at football, and you could be more than a quarterback. I’d listen to you after practice and sometimes you’d talk my ear off at 12 years old.’ There was an engineering program I heard about through UMSL, so I told his mom and dad, they got him in, and here we are 10 years later. I told you, ‘Don’t forget about me when you’re making six figures.’ Another gentleman got married and the last one got engaged. So to see them flourishing and not give up, they took what I said to heart.”
“I’ve always had compassion and empathy for people. And I was blessed to always have two parents. My dad worked for a carburetor company and they relocated at one point. Having two incomes, a home, cars, and raising children, it was a hard time. My dad didn’t want to pick up and move his whole family to Minnesota. That was a pretty difficult time, but I saw my parents persevere. We weren’t perfect, of course. But everybody stayed together and pitched in where we could so we wouldn’t lose our home. I would see young guys in the neighborhood where I grew up and some of them didn’t have food. Meanwhile, my parents were like, ‘Come on in. Feed the kids. Give them clothes.’ I saw some very humbling things. And I took that to build something that’s been on my mind and on my heart.
I’m persistent. I try not to be the nag. But I am gonna check up on you to let you know someone cares and do all I can to ensure someone uses all the resources that are available. It’s more than a pat on the back, like, ‘It’s gonna be okay…’ No, they need to see it’s going to be okay. And you ensure that by calling or showing up. So I take them to lunch. ‘Come on, man. Let’s walk and talk. How are you doing, mentally? Emotionally?’ And they start sharing. I’ve been like this all of my life. It’s just how I’m wired. I’m the best BBQ man in the Midwest. My mom said I came out with a fork in one hand and a Bible in the other. So I’m going to feed you physically with the BBQ and then I’m gonna feed you spiritually with the word of God.”
“I also do food distribution. So early on in COVID, I worked with Nourish Community STL. And in two years, we fed over half a million children breakfast, lunch, and a snack for seven days plus milk and fresh fruits and vegetables. As part of the Regional Health Commission Patient Advisory Board, I let the organization and board members know what I’m doing. Like, ‘If you know of any daycare centers, community centers, nursing homes, churches, or anybody in the surrounding areas in need of food, please let me know.’ Many called and I was able to assist them. And it was a harsh reality that a lot of the food children were eating had been at school and they didn’t have food when they got home. So it was imperative to get the word out that help was available. Sometimes I’d spend up to 16 hours delivering food Mondays through Fridays. It would get donated from the St. Louis Area Food Bank or Performance Food Service, and it would be in conjunction with a summer food program. We’d feed children from 2 to 14 years of age. On those deliveries, I’d see a lot of unhoused too. Since we had fresh food, I’d just stop and they’d be like children running: ‘It’s Brother D! He’s got the bunch, y’all!’”
“I’m just one of many. I stand on the shoulders of so many organizations that have been doing this week after week, year after year, and it’s been an honor being able to serve. I do what I do because it needs to be done. I believe in reciprocity. Ya know, what if it was me who worried about where I’m gonna get my next meal or if I couldn’t breathe or if I had a tooth hurting? You know the pain a toothache has. Can you imagine if you needed a tooth pulled or you had excruciating pain from neuropathy to carpal tunnel or whatever it may be? Where do you go, to the emergency room for 8, 10, or 12 hours and get a prescription you don’t have money for?
I mentor a lot of young men and I’m grateful they’re falling suit. We call them Mini D’s. People will say, ‘I saw you’re little mentees out here passing out fliers.’ That means I have taught them well. I cannot be everywhere at once. So I go through these mini-training sessions, that might be slightly coerced with pizza, and the word is getting out. The sessions are very impromptu and informal. I’ll let them know this is what I’m trying to accomplish today. A lot of them have family members and neighbors who haven’t been to the doctor in a while. They’re walking time bombs. So I talk about The Big Three — diabetes, high blood pressure, and depression. And talking about things starts in the home and spreads out. If everything under your roof is doing well, then you go out to the village. And you’ll be surprised at the overwhelming response. It’s not selling insurance. No, this is a gift. But a gift is only good when you open it.
“There are just so many barriers and obstacles under-resourced communities are faced with. That’s why access and equity speak volumes. Just letting people know there is access and we want that same equity to be across the board for everybody is crucial. You don’t have to feel embarrassed or ashamed or jump through a lot of red tape and hoops. We want to make ourselves very visible to the community to let them know, ‘Here we are and we’re here to help.’Demaris Ridgell, RHC Patient Advisory Board Member
Just being out here at grocery stores, at laundry mats, at gas stations — I do that. Everywhere I go, I try to inform as many people as I can because a lot of folks don’t have computers or Internet access. I try to get those fliers, brochures, and booklets out to say, ‘This health center allows you to bring your children. This allows you to get free screenings.’ I’ll definitely continue to do my part. I’m grateful to be a part of the RHC because this is a way of life for them. They want for people what they want for themselves their children and their families. Everybody.”