A matter of trust: Profile on Dr. Brink Brinkley
By Katie Scarvey
Dr. William Brinkley ó everyone calls him Brink ó remembers the days when his wife, Trish, used to treat him like he had a regular job.
“How was your day?” she’d ask when he came home from work.
“You don’t want to know,” he’d tell her.
“In the beginning, I felt hurt,” Trish says.
One day, he did tell her about his day.
Then, he says, she realized why he might want to shuck off work for the evening to just be a husband and father.
Brinkley faces cancer on behalf of others every day in his work as an oncologist at Carolina Oncology Associates in Salisbury.
No class in medical school ever prepared him to deliver bad news to people, Brinkley says, although he hopes that’s changed.
His typical day includes a lot of emotional situations, and Brinkley has the personality, the demeanor and the emotional intelligence to handle them.
His voice helps. It’s soothing, kind, with a Southerner’s soft cadences. It expresses an empathy that is heartfelt.
Communicating well is important to him because he understands what it’s like to be left in the dark.
Brinkley’s mother had lymphoma when he was a child.
His family never really talked about it.
“My parents didn’t communicate well,” he said. “I don’t think they ever said she had cancer. There were no discussions.”
In some ways, he says, he felt cheated by not really knowing how sick his mother was.
She died when Brinkley was in his second year at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Brinkley is known for his sensitivity with patients who are undergoing tough treatments ó chemotherapy and radiation.
He also brings his powers of empathy to patients’ families, who may be struggling as much as the patient is.
Brinkley’s approach includes a high degree of honesty. He may deliver news in a soft voice, but he doesn’t patronize patients by shielding them from reality.
“People need to know how sick they are,” he says.
That’s because they need to be able to make choices and have a chance to take care of things, he says.
Brinkley realizes that his patients and their families place a huge amount of trust in him.
“It amazes me to this day that I can ask somebody anything ó and they’ll answer whatever I ask,” he says.
He never gets over being surprised when patients thank him after getting what is arguably the worst news of their lives.
He’s learned that how you help a patient along the journey may be more important than how you actually treat the disease, he says.
That Brinkley is a beloved presence on the journey ó for both the patient and his or her family ó is evident to Trish when she goes with him to Relay for Life and sees the dozens of grateful people who approach her husband to catch up on things.
Brinkley understands that inclination, because he had a close relationship with his mother’s oncologist, Dr. Gene Orringer.
“He was very helpful to me,” Brinkley says.
Like his mentor, Brinkley is passionate about what he does.
He enjoys spending time learning about his patients’ lives, Trish says.
Often, patients learn about his as well, and they’ll come bearing his favorite things ó like blackberries and blueberries and fish they’ve caught.
Vicki Medlin is one of Brinkley’s breast cancer patients. She’s currently cancer-free.
Medlin trusts Brinkley implicitly.
When he touches her during an examination, she says, “he makes you feel like an angel’s tapping on you.”
“He just brings you peace no matter how scared you are. He’s got a way about him.”
With Brinkley, she says, there’s no rushing you out the door. He always takes the time she needs to feel secure. Patricia Jacobs would agree with that. Jacobs has been a patient of Brinkley’s since 2001, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She’s been back to see Brinkley on and off since then and is currently on chemotherapy for a recurrence.
“He’s a wonderful doctor,” she says. “He’s very easy to talk to, and he really understands the patient.”
She likes that he is down to earth and explains things well.
Gail Brown is an X-ray technician who works with Brinkley.
“He’s very caring,” she says. “All the patients love him to death.”
Dr. Mark Wimmer, who also practices at Carolina Oncology, has known Brinkley for 14 years, since they were medical students.
Brinkley, he says, is very level-headed and has a great bedside manner.
“He’s very patient and even-keeled,” Wimmer says.
Brinkley has a hard time saying “no,” Wimmer adds, often coming to see patients on his days off, even though he doesn’t have to.
Trish confirms this.
“Most days off,” she says, “he goes into work to see at least one patient.”
That may be why his patients are so dedicated to him. Brinkley has a “cult” following, Wimmer says.
The oncologist’s role, he adds, is part pastor and part doctor ó and Brinkley is great at playing the comforter role, he says.
The patience and compassion that Brinkley is known for at work are qualities he brings to his life at home as well, Trish says.
“Even if he’s tired or has had a rough day, he doesn’t just go sit down and put his feet up,” she says. He helps with homework ó he re-learned geometry this year, Trish says ó and makes sure daughters Brianna and Marissa get where they need to go.
One thing that people might be surprised to learn about her husband, Trish says, is how much he likes to cook. He enjoys watching cooking shows on television and using what he’s learned in the kitchen, making dishes like shrimp and polenta or sweet potato gnocchi.
Growing up in Valdese, however, he wasn’t doing much of that. He spent most of his free time outdoors, fishing and hunting, whether it was deer or snakes.
He loved animals and as a child thought that he’d be a marine biologist. He majored in biology at UNC.
Cancer claimed his mother’s life when he was a sophomore, only a few months after he and Trish, who’s also from Valdese, had their first date.
At some point as an undergraduate, he decided he wanted to be a veterinarian, doing volunteer work at a veterinary office in Chapel Hill. He applied to vet school at N.C. State University.
He wasn’t accepted.
Disappointed, he came up with a new plan and following graduation got a job in the laboratory at UNC’s pharmacology department.
Since he hadn’t even been on a waiting list for vet school, he was surprised when he got a phone call offering him a slot.
Since he’d already committed to the other job, he continued there. One of the doctors he worked with encouraged him to consider medical school, as did Orringer.
He ended up at Wake Forest, and by process of elimination, found himself settling on oncology as a career.
He’s been working at his Salisbury practice for 10 years now.
When he has time to relax ó which isn’t often, he says ó he likes to travel with his family. He also likes to take care of the small herd of cows he keeps on his Bringle Ferry Road property.
About six years ago, with First United Methodist Church, he began going on the church’s mission trip to Guatemala, where he runs a travelling clinic with limited resources, treating people for things like vitamin deficiencies and infections ó a far cry from chemotherapy and radiation.
He gets a different sort of satisfaction from that work. Although sometimes he’s frustrated that he won’t be able to follow up on a patient’s problems, maybe it boils down to his favorite quote: “The true meaning of life is to plant trees under whose shade you do not expect to sit.