Dr. Debbie Ingram promotes physical therapy and education at UTC

Dr. Debbie Ingram
Dr. Debbie Ingram

Champions of Health Care

America's complex and technologically driven medical system is as sophisticated, complex and expensive as any in the world. But within that vast system are those who still put the "care" in health care and who we recognize as the winners of this year's Champions of Health Care awards.Edge magazine, in partnership with the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Medical Society and BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, received more than 150 nominations from the public about health care providers, administrators and volunteers who have made health care better in Chattanooga. From among those nominations, a panel of judges comprised of top leaders from the medical society and each of Chattanooga's three major hospital systems - Erlanger Health System, CHI Memorial Hospital, Parkridge Health System -picked the winners that we salute in the following pages.The Champions of Health Care award winners recognize those who have tackled major community health problems, starting programs to tackle obesity and smoking, adding physical therapy training in Chattanooga, and bringing needed medical services to those without health insurance. Others are recognized for new approaches, strong leadership and simple acts of kindness during their lifetimes of achievement and service.In our second year of the awards, we have quickly discovered the rich talent and commitment from those who work every day to keep us healthy.

Growing up on a farm in Cleveland, Tennessee, Debbie Ingram decided at an early age to become a physical therapist.

Watching her grandmother do daily tasks with rheumatoid arthritis, Ingram decided at age 13 she wanted to help people with similar health problems by pursuing a PT career. Her interest was sparked by her grandmother's suggestion based upon a physical therapist character in one of her favorite soap operas.

"That's something you should do," Ingram's grandmother suggested, and the idea took hold.

Nearly four decades later, Ingram is convinced she made the right choice, both in directly working with patients for more than a decade and then teaching students about physical therapy at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga for 27 years.

"There has never been a day that I regretted my decision to become a physical therapist," says Ingram, who now serves as director of clinical education and department chair of physical therapy at UTC. "It's a fabulous profession to be able to spend time with patients as they are facing some of the most challenging and difficult times in their lives and to help them figure out how they can change the way they are doing things in order to engage in society."

To earn her first of three college degrees, Dr. Ingram had to wait a year to get into Georgia State University, after she initially wasn't accepted in the highly competitive program in the 1970s. The competition to get PT degrees has intensified even more over the years even as the degree requirements have increased for those practicing in the field. In the new PT program that begins in August, there were 586 applicants for 36 positions at UTC.

Non-Physician Practitioner Award

Honors a health care provider other than a doctor whose performance is considered exemplary by patients and peersWinner: Dr. Debbie IngramAccomplishments: As a trained physical therapist, Ingram rose through the ranks at Erlanger hospital to become director of rehabilitation before switching to academia to help launch the physical therapy program at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga in 1990. Ingram now heads the department at UTC and has been a leader in her professional associations as well as UT’s alumni association and development efforts by the university.

photo University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Department of Physical Therapy founder and former director Randy Walker, left, and UTC Department of Physical Therapy Head Debbie Ingram pose for a portrait in a physical therapy room at the James Mapp building on Tuesday, June 27, in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Although enrollment in the UTC program has doubled and the degree requirements elevated to a doctoral level, Ingram said the need and demand for physical therapists continues to grow, especially as the U.S. population ages.

Ingram began her career in 1979 at Erlanger Medical Center where she rose through the ranks to become director of rehabilitation, managing five departments.

In 1990, when Dr. Ingram and her husband, David, adopted a baby girl and she wanted more flexibility in her career, Ingram joined UTC to help launch the school's physical therapy department with four other faculty members at the time. Dr. Randy Walker, who helped start the physical therapy program at UTC nearly three decades ago as only the second PT program in Tennessee, recruited Ingram as an experienced clinician and manager.

Since then, Ingram has personally taught more than 600 physical therapists and is now working with more than 90 doctoral students from her office in the recently remodelled Mapp Building that UTC acquired last year.

While developing the PT program and teaching at UTC, she also earned a doctorate at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, where her daughter is also now finishing up her doctoral degree and is working as for the NCAA in Indianapolis.

But Ingram has not been content to stay in Chattanooga and work only in her own department. Forever a volunteer, Ingram has served as chair of the Tennessee Board of Occupational and Physical Therapy Examiners, co-chair of the American Physical Therapy Association's Clinical Education Special Interest Group and a board member for the Tennessee Physical Therapy Association and the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy.

"I am not one just to sit on the fence - and neither are the others in this department," she says. "If you look at the progress our faculty have made on a national level, we have been very successful."

Ingram's passion for volunteerism extends beyond physical therapy.

In 2007 and 2008, she served as president of the University of Tennessee National Alumni Association, representing the 335,000 graduates of all campuses. It was the only time in history that the president was a faculty member. Traveling across the country, Ingram delivered more than 100 speeches promoting the value of higher education at UT and encouraging other alumni to share their stories of how education changed their lives.

"Education changes people's lives and it was a real thrill to talk about the University of Tennessee and meet with alumni all over the country," she says.

Ingram is this year's Champion of Health Care for a non-physician practitioner.

"It is difficult to capture and quantify the many ways in which Dr. Ingram demonstrates outstanding performance, but her achievements show the value she places on her profession, her colleagues, her students and UTC," Dr. Steve Angle, UTC's chancellor, said in nominating Ingram for the award.

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