On the next to last day of exams last spring in his final semester of law school, Keaston White lost it.
One of his medications had stopped working, and his body felt overheated sharply. Along with the mental fatigue of taking an exam, he was light-headed, exhausted and couldn’t move. He was also scared, angry, frustrated and wondered how much more he could possibly tolerate.
His nurse checked his blood pressure and, finding it extremely low, gave him water and a pill and put an abdominal binder on him. Then Keaston asked her to leave the room.
After she left, he says, “I broke down.”
“It’s very hard,” he says. “Mentally, I was done. It’s stressful to be on a medication that stops working.”
So for two full minutes, Keaston gave in to despair. Then he called the nurse, and when his condition stabilized 40 minutes later, he completed the exam.
“I don’t know if I passed,” he wrote in a text message to his mother, “but I’m done.” (He later learned that he passed “with flying colors.”)
Keaston, 25, has been in the spotlight since he sustained a complete C-5 spinal cord injury playing football as a high school freshman. Fundraisers and other support in Gwinnett County, north of Atlanta, were immediate and continued throughout his rehabilitation at Shepherd Center and beyond. When he returned to high school, he earned straight A’s, was the prom king and voted “Most Unforgettable” in his class and “Mr. Eagle.” He also received an award from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for academic and leadership excellence, and his inspirational essay was included in “Chicken Soup for the Soul: Extraordinary Teens.”
At Emory University, Keaston majored in psychology and participated in extracurricular activities that included theater and a step group. Then he completed his studies at Atlanta’s John Marshall Law School in three years despite limitations imposed by his disability.
Keaston wears a cuff on his hand and uses the eraser-end of a pencil to operate a computer and smart phone. But he can’t write as fast as others and used a note-taker and an audio recorder in class. He also took tests in a separate room.
“Those are needs, not wants,” says Minna Hong, peer support coordinator at Shepherd Center. “It takes extra work if you have a disability. You can’t just show up and get things done.”
“It’s leveling the playing field,” Keaston says. “I didn’t gain an advantage.”
Cathi Dugger, a physical therapist at Shepherd, says Keaston has also been an inspiring peer supporter for teen-agers with disabilities who think their lives are over.
“Even as an inpatient, Keaston tried as hard as he could and never gave up and never gave in to self-pity,” Cathi says. “Despite complications with his injury, he had a great attitude, and he has a great sense of humor. He never stopped, and he didn’t give up on what he wanted. That’s great for others to see.”
What others have not seen is his struggle to stay upbeat despite repeated complications.
“When I was younger,” Keaston says, “I didn’t know how to make sense of life. I thought I would be paralyzed, but I would be OK. Then I started law school, and I’ve had all these medical setbacks, and it’s turned my world upside down. In February, I had urosepsis. My immune system was affected, and my body has been up and down. Now, I suffer from hypotension that requires medication, and I have to wear an abdominal binder. If I don’t wear it, I could pass out.”
He also has learned to supervise his caregivers closely – “Some of them don’t know what they’re supposed to know,” he explains – and what to do when medications fail. Life is not a matter of a “new normal,” but rather a series of them.
“Before, I thought my mind was in control,” Keaston says. “Now, my life is driven by changes in my body, and none of it is predictable. As a kid growing up, you make a lot of mistakes. But I don’t have that luxury. If I don’t take control, the disability will, and I didn’t realize how important and necessary it was. I didn’t know my health could be so up and down.”
“He’s had more than his share of complications,” Minna says, “but he’s kept plugging away. Whatever your disability, it’s what you make of it, and Keaston has stepped up when it would have been easy not to. He’s tenacious and he’s kept his perspective and moved forward. I’m very proud of that young man.”
Keaston has had excellent support from his family – father Brady is an engineering manager; mother Shirley is a registered nurse; older sister Brandi Hoyos is a teacher – even before his injury. He was a superior student and never left home without telling his mother he loved her. But despite his accomplishments, he also realizes that he’s been in school since his injury, and he wonders what life will be like when he’s on his own.
“He’s still got a learning curve,” Shirley says, “but his father and I have been trying to prepare him to be independent and get him ready for things he’s not aware of.”
As an undergraduate, Keaston participated in extracurricular activities to prove a point. “Society doesn’t cater to or consider people with disabilities,” he says. “I had this need to belong in a place where I felt I didn’t belong, so I had to make myself a place. And that still drives me. It keeps me from accepting the way I move, the way I look and the way I’m perceived. I’m never satisfied. I have a strong longing for everything.”
He’s considering a career in federal government and as an advocate for people with disabilities, but he hasn’t given up on his love of the theater, and he also enjoys motivational speaking.
As for the occasional meltdown, he says, “You can only sulk for so long. It’s counter-productive. It’s too much time wasting what God has given me. It’s a self-esteem thing: I have to accept where I am, but I don’t accept that I can’t do better.”
To view a WXIA-TV feature story on Keaston's graduation, go to: