By Sille Veilmark
David Brinkley, 49, is dressed in blue. His jumper is tangent to gray, his jeans are whiter on the knees, and the rubber along the sole of his running shoes is shining white. The shoes have no marks on them yet, and they carry him back and forth to the sound of a running dishwasher in the kitchen of his home in Alvaton, Kentucky.
While two tiger-striped greyhounds and a cat that just rolled in dust are running in between his legs, David is packing a black backpack with three things: insurance papers, an orange pill container and a light blue 12-ounce Red Bull energy drink.
With shoe shopping, greyhounds, red bull and faith, David Brinkley, the director of public broadcasting at Western Kentucky University, is battling Head and Neck Cancer. He was diagnosed with the rare type of cancer, also known as Oral Cavity and Pharynx Cancer, in Oct 2017.
So far, David has been through three surgeries: one for a tumor on the tonsil, a second for a tumor in his left lymph node and a third for a tumor on his right lung. But even so, on March 15 he was told that he had 18 months left to live.
In response to this verdict, he changed hospitals to keep all possible treatments available. A fourth surgery is awaiting him. This one to test if there is cancer on his tongue and, together with a tissue sample from the tumor on the lung, it will dictate if there is metastatic cancer and if he needs chemo. But the doctors can’t predict the future, and all David can do is wait. The wait in between is now his chance of living life fully.
12:30 p.m., April 6, 2018, 4th surgery
“We have plenty of time,” Jennifer Brinkley says behind the steering wheel of a black truck. David Brinkley compliments his wife’s’ driving from the co-seat for the third time, while she is navigating a parking structure with a low ceiling.
As they get out of the car at a brown brick hospital in Nashville, Tennessee, he slips the Red Bull in his left back pocket of his jeans. Jennifer is carrying two bags. They are early. They were told David’s surgery might be pushed forward, but as they approach a woman at the counter at the check in, she has bad news: The surgery at Vanderbilt University Medical Center has been delayed a few hours instead.
The waiting room is full of reverberant chatter from about 50 people, and it is bouncing off a red tile floor and a big, centered brass pillar. David and Jennifer decide to step outside. In the scent of blooming trees and warm air, David takes a selfie in front of the hospital, so Jennifer has an image to place on their public journal site together with the news of the surgery once it is done. Afterwards he turns the iPhone toward a bed of pansies.
“This is how to kill time,” David says, clicking away.
Jennifer is quiet. She sits next to the pansies and her blond hair waves slowly in the wind. As David shows her the pictures, she leans on him, her cheek to his shoulder and smiles. They stay close for a while, ignoring a helicopter roaring as it lands at the roof above them.
Today is the Day!
Journal entry by Jenn Brinkley — Oct 27, 2017
“Today is the day of surgery! We arrived at the hospital at 5am EST. We slept maybe three hours last night, nerves. David is in preop and anesthesia has swung by, as well as both of his primary surgeons. The surgery, once it begins, is anticipated to last 5 hours. The doctor moved the surgery up so the entire OR Robot team would be present. They will start with the neck dissection then move on to the tonsillectomy. We had a great dinner last night in preparation of fasting. We even stopped by Build-A-Bear to make Sesame Street characters.
The PET scan luckily came back only showing two tumors in the lymph nodes and the tumor on the tonsil. David has now been pushed back to the OR. He’s rocking an amazing blue hat. 🙂 PRAYERS AND GOOD THOUGHTS!”
David Brinkley was born on Halloween, Oct. 31, 1968. At 6 weeks old, he got adopted by George and Justine Brinkley and they raised him in Somerset as an only child. In kindergarden he got in involved in music, and he joined a program at their church where he would sing in the youth choir.
There were only few things that really interested the young David: law, music and communication. He wanted to be an attorney and he played the trumpet. But when he watched television, he would constantly look for mistakes: a boom mic in the picture, a shadow that belonged to the crew or continuity issues.
“It was just amazing to me. The visuals, the lighting,” he says.
The church had their own broadcasting channel and in junior high when Davis was 12, he got to run the camera during services. But he got a scholarship in music at University of Kentucky in Lexington, and he kept it for two years until he drifted away from music in his sophomore year. Then he changed his major to telecommunication.
His main interest was communication, and while he was in college he worked three jobs. He worked at the Athletics Department at UK where he shot video and at VideoLab in Lexington, and he shot wedding videos as well — sometimes even two a day. Justine didn’t like him spending his time on anything else but school, but as it turned out his grades went up when he found his passion.
He also travelled with the Women’s Basketball team at UK, and that is where he met his first wife. She was one of the players and they went out for a few months before they got engaged in 1990. That same year, David graduated from University of Kentucky with a science degree in telecommunications.
In 1992 he got the first job he really cared about at Kentucky Educational Television in Lexington. At work he was told that he should get a map of Kentucky and every time he went to a new county, he should color it in. Within a few years he had been to most of them, and he had visited 18 states. A couple of co-workers adopted retired race dogs from a new program in Lexington, and they idea of adopting a Greyhound stayed in the back of David’s mind.
In 1993 he got married, and in 1994 he joined ESPN where he traveled a lot. He went on trip after trip to football places like Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma. On Sept. 21, 1998, he became a father to Madison, and after five years at KET, he joined PBS at Western Kentucky University as television production manager.
2:50 PM, April 6, 2018, 4th surgery
“Ninety percent chance it’s the same,” David says, leaning forward over a small square table in an orange painted subway-look-alike café.
“Ten percent chance it wasn’t,” Jennifer replies.
“I wish we could take an anniversary trip this year, but it’s kind of hard to plan,” Jennifer says.
On May 14, they would married for 13 years.
“We will know very soon,” David comforts his wife, as he scrolls through pages of shoes on his phone.
His eyes are bloodshot and clear. His left leg is bouncing up and down, and his face is getting redder under his white beard. For a few seconds the pop music from the speakers and conversation about a hospitalized father from another table is the only sound in between the couple.
“You smell broccoli?” David suddenly asks. “I hate broccoli.”
A female doctor two tables down on his left is eating chicken and broccoli from a square glass bowl. David starts talking about one single recipe with broccoli that he actually liked, and he takes up his phone to ask for the recipe on a text. “It was yummy,” it ends, and a smiley with its tongue out appears. That inspires David to try different words for smiley substitutes. He types the word “barf.”
“Oh, yeah!” he exclaims as a barfing smiley appears.
Jennifer remains silent.
Journal entry by Jenn Brinkley — Nov 7, 2017
“We received mixed news today. Luckily David was able to have the feeding tube removed. His stitches were also removed from the neck incision. He is on a very runny diet. Everything needs to be diluted, blended, or liquid form as choking, and aspiration are primary concerns until his body heals. But no more feeding tube at this point!
There is a tumor in his left lymph node. As such, he will be having another surgery to remove it. It is scheduled for November 29 and he should be discharged from the hospital on November 30. David is disappointed he has to have another surgery but is very happy radiation and chemo will not be needed at this time. He is undergoing an X-ray right now to ensure his jaw was not dislocated during surgery. He is unable to close his teeth together. If it was, they can fix it during the next surgery. Also, he has had speech issues since the surgery. We were assured today he does not need speech therapy at this time and these issues should resolve as his body heals and swelling decreases. Thanks for all of your thoughts and prayers!!!”
In 1999 David met Jennifer at WKU, when Jennifer was a student worker at PBS. David’s main field was still sports, but they worked together on a magazine program called Main Street. Jennifer graduated in 2001 and moved to Chattanooga for a job.
On April 16, 2003, David became a father for the second time. This time to a boy called Braden. But the same year, his divorce from his first wife began. In September, he got separated and, in need for legal advice, David called Jennifer, who had changed career and gotten into law school. In February 2004 the divorce went through, and David and Jennifer started dating. Justine Brinkley remembers David calling home to tell her about Jennifer:
“He said, ‘Mom, this girl … she can do it all!’” Justine says.
A few months after, on Nov. 11 at 11:11 p.m., David pulled the 10-year younger Jennifer with him to the bell tower at WKU. The school mascot, Big Red, that was Jennifer’s favorite mascot, was there with a sign saying, “make a wish.”
On May 14, 2005 they had the only wedding ever held in the auditorium of Mass Media & Technology Hall at WKU. It was perfect, David recalls. They lived in the Bowling Green area and Madison and Braden would visit in the weekends. In 2005, they also bought their house in Alvaton.
In 2006, they were both on the Foster Care Review Board, and they had only been eligible to take in a foster child for three days, when they got a call. They were asked to take care of a malnourished, 12-month-old baby for the weekend before a decision of where to put him was made.
But the boy Gauge wasn’t picked up, so he stayed with David and Jennifer longer. About a month in, Jennifer’s father came down to spend the day with Gauge, but on his way home he was killed in a car accident. At that point Gauge became David and Jennifer’s child.
“For me it was a link to him, he was our kid at that point. I didn’t wanted to lose him,” David says.
In November 2010, Gauge was finally eligible for adoption, and David got to be a father officially for the third time.
Life was great. David was productive at work. Sometimes he could be away for three to four days a time and stay home normal weekdays. In 2013, David was named general manager for WKYU-TV (WKU PBS) and WKU Public Radio, and in 2014 he became Director of WKU Public Broadcasting. At the same time, the radio station had an uncertain future, and David worked hard for the survival of the station with the news director, Kevin Willis,
“It was a very trying time where we gained mutual respect for each other,” Willis says. “David had the skills we needed. He had connections, he stated our case and got the university’s support.”
But David loved his job.
“I’ve watched him taking the station to new heights. That has been fun to see,” Jennifer says.
In 2015, Jennifer joined the faculty at WKU in Paralegal Studies, and in 2017, when Gauge turned 10, David and Jennifer decided to adopt their first Greyhound. The 6-year-old male named Movin’.
3:40 PM, April 6, 2018, 4th surgery
David’s bed is warm in the round pre-operation room. Next to him are other patients waiting for surgery, while Jennifer is grading her law students in the reverberant room two floors below.
“You get these funny little socks to wear,” the nurse tells him as she pulls out yellow socks with white rubber on them from a bag together with a purple paper gown for David.
“Do you think this is my color?” he asks her, referring to his gown.
“Well, it is spring,” she says while putting sanitizer on her hands.
She is about to find the spot for her to inject his hand with a needle.
“I use a 16-gage, if that means anything to you,” he tells her.
“That’s a big one,” she says.
David doesn’t like telling the staff what needle works. This is his fourth time in six months he has to put his clothes in a plastic bag and things are becoming routine. A female doctor in blue clothes and black clogs greets him. She leans to the bed, crosses her legs and supports herself with a hand on the mattress.
“They are going down to take a peak and maybe take a biopsy, is that what’s your understanding?” she asks him.
She takes a look in his mouth, and he has troubles opening up wide enough. He tells her about his nausea and tendency to barf after a surgery, and as she leaves him to himself, he starts observing the different shoes the staff in pre-operation wear. There’s a lot of different running shoes. Some colorful and some more mundane. A few clogs appear under blue and gray pants as well. David see it as a way for the staff to express their personality.
Time goes by before a surgeon stops by. It’s David’s doctor. His hands and body are lean, and his hair is pitch black with few grey stains in it.
“If it’s negative, you are clear of cancer here and here,” the doctor says while holding his hands around his own neck and throat.
“So we continue to treat me until I die?” David asks.
“Absolutely,” the doctor says.
“But I will live a little longer with treatment?” David asks.
He will, the doctor reassures him. They have been in touch quite a lot lately. Mostly by text.
“That’s how you know when you are sick. It’s when the doctor gives you his telephone number,” David says.
At 5:15 p.m., his warm bed finally gets rolled down the hallway toward the operating room.
Journal entry by Jenn Brinkley — Mar 7, 2018
“David had a PET scan yesterday. Everything looks good in his neck. Unfortunately, the scan showed a 3cm mass on his right lung. A thoracic surgeon was called in (he literally was pulled out of surgery to consult) and surgery has been scheduled for tomorrow. They bumped someone else’s surgery to be able to put David on the schedule. We are encouraged by the rapid response to the mass but also alarmed at how quickly it appeared and grew and the seriousness of this surgery. A portion of David’s right lung will be removed, and perhaps a rib, they will know more once they are inside. They will also know whether it is a benign or malignant tumor once they are in surgery. David was made aware of all of this late yesterday afternoon. To say we are saddened and stunned would be an understatement. We took time last night to process steps forward. The throat surgeon said it is very rare for his type of cancer to “jump” from the neck to the lung, so we are trying to remain hopeful that this will be a benign tumor. The thoracic surgeon said this should not impact his respiration abilities and he should be in the hospital for 2 days then back to regular activities within a week.”
David Brinkley was only 17 days away from his 49th birthday when he on the morning of homecoming, Oct. 14, 2017, he looked in the mirror and saw an extra piece of skin on his tonsils. He drove straight to the hospital, and when four people emerged to look in his throat at the same time, he knew something was wrong.
According to National Cancer Institute, Head and neck cancers account for approximately 4 percent of all cancers in the United States and are more than twice as common among men as they are among women. The survival rate on a five-year basis is 64.8 percent.
David was given two options: chemo and radiation and then surgery, or surgery and a chance of avoiding chemo and radiation. David chose surgeries and they scheduled a surgery for his tonsils and for his right lymph nodes.
Oct. 27, 2017 was a day full of pain. With the feeling of a blowtorch in his throat combined with nausea and barfing because of opioids, a feeding tube through his nose and inability to speak, he told Jennifer he wanted to die.
“It’s hard being both a wife and a caretaker. I’ve seen the pain he has gone through, I don’t know if I could be as strong. I have to take emotionally care of him and let people around us know what is going on. It takes a toll, but it’s worse on him,” Jennifer says.
Since then, David has been in and out of two hospitals for surgeries, biopsies and scanning’s and it has changed their lives completely. They had no control to how the days went, and they relied on the kids’ ability to be independent as well as friends to take care of the dogs.
Doctor appointments led them around in Kentucky for a long time, and Jennifer created an online journal for their friends and family with the main intent to keep everything documented and to let people know what is going on. That way she didn’t had to repeat every update to everyone all the time. From believing they had all the time in the world, to finding out that time is not to take for granted, they tried to spend more focused time together.
Jennifer and David became closer than they had ever been.
“It’s done wonders for our relationship. We don’t waste time anymore. This is fresh and new, we date, watch comedies, movies, we go on honeymoons. I don’t want to die, but on the other hand, I don’t want to lose what we have. The only way this can continue, is if I die. Cause if not, we go back to the mundane routines. We can’t burn this hot forever, and I think about this every day,” David says.
In mid-November 2017, David was able to get back to the work that he loves, and as he recovered he bought a pair of purple Vans. He really liked them and a habit of looking for shoes, became a great distraction for him, when illness and the wait for doctors to come up with answers filled up his mind. He has bought seven pair of shoes, mostly sport shoes.
In Febuary 2018, the future looked bright and Jennifer argued that Movin’ needed a friend. David agreed to foster another Greyhound, a 5-year-old female called Nui. The second retired race dog turned out to be a lot cuddlier than Movin’, and even before Jennifer, David fell in love with her and in return she keeps David warm in their bed.
“They have been so good for me. They don’t want to talk, they are just with you. The dogs, they can feel,” he says.
But on March 15, 2018, David’s battle changed again. He was told the cancer had metastasized and would reoccur, either to his liver, bones, lungs, lymph nodes or neck. Kevin Willis remembers when David told the co-workers on a Monday morning after a meeting in which budget cuts had been discussed.
“He has always been open and honest, and he told us: ‘I’m gonna do everything I can to fight it, and I want to work, but the minute I can’t be effective as a leader I will step aside.,'” Willis says. “That’s how I would have expected him to handle that. It was a shock but seeing him calm and steady with a clear mind, kept me calm and steady, too.”
6:50 PM, April 6, 2018, 4th surgery
“How are you doing?” Jennifer asks David in a soft, light voice.
He lies in a big room with a brown curtain around his bed; his face is red, and his eyes big, trying to find focus. He throws a pair of hand signs; thumbs in the air and pinky down, while the rest of the fist is closed.
“Good,” he answers.
“I like your socks. How are you feeling? You look good,” Jennifer says.
The doctor just gave her good news. He didn’t think it was cancer this time, but he will get back once he takes a look at the tissue from the biopsy as well as the second tissue from another hospital.
“I didn’t barf yet,” David answers.
Then the nurse closes the curtains, and Jennifer helps David get out of the purple paper gown and into his own clothes from the plastic bag.
As the nurse checks if he is stable and pulls out the needle from his hand, he reaches for the Red Bull that Jennifer passes him. With the hand not getting the nurse’s attention he opens the can and starts gulping. He looks to the distance, and if it wasn’t for the constant sipping, he would easily have been mistaken for someone not awake.
As the hospital grows smaller in the back of the black truck, Jennifer starts talking. Her voice is light, and the sentences are many:
“And you got out earlier than they said!”
David rolls the chair back with a big clunk.
“Uh, baby are you OK?” she asks.
“It wasn’t my ass they operated,” he answers and grabs a mini pretzel from a bag Jennifer bought.
She wants him to be careful, to chew them properly, and then she small talks with herself while David stays quiet while dissolving the pretzels:
“Oh, I’m in the wrong lane.”
“Oh, there’s that little drink place!”
“It took a very long time for you to get to the operation.”
“We’re one down baby!” she keeps on.
“These pretzels are awesome!” David exclaims, while the Australian google maps lady directs them through a busy Nashville night.
“OK, now I made it through, I can get a new pair of shoes,” David leans back and start scrolling through shoes on his phone. It’s more the research than the actual buying that keeps him occupied. Then they start talking about Montana and Alaska.
“We started this planning, thinking I was going to die. And I might still,” David says.
“That’s why I say, let’s go for Alaska next week,” Jennifer says. Now they might have the time to get that anniversary trip she asked for in the cafeteria.
At 7.45 p.m., David gets his first meal: Meat loaf, mac n’ cheese, sweet potato casserole with brown sugar and a strawberry layer cake. Full and tired they reach the house, where the Greyhounds Nui and Movin’ jump up and down in the windows as they pull up the driveway. It’s 9:25 p.m.
Journal entry by Jenn Brinkley — Apr 25, 2018
We were able to talk to the doctor yesterday. The hospital had only sent the lung tissue for testing and not the throat tissue so we were delayed in having the in situ hybridization testing done on the tumors. This testing was to determine whether the tumor in the lung was head and neck cancer or a different cancer. We were told the testing confirmed metastatic cancer. This means the lung tumor metastasized from the primary source of the cancer: the tonsil. This is the worst-case scenario but the doctor said there are still tools in the toolbox to fight. We will be talking to the chemo doctor today about getting started with chemo and also immunotherapy options. I will update once we know more.
9:45 PM, May 1, 2018
“I am a wreck, emotionally,” David says as he eats a few crackers from a blue and gray bowl at a round wooden table in his home.
Mayflies are swarming outside of the dimly lit window and the cat is trying to catch them from the inside. David has been preparing for chemo all week, but now the doctors are telling him that he might be fine. They are still waiting for the answers of today’s biopsy, David’s third.
“I can’t jump up and down and be happy. It’s not gone but it’s just not there. Every time I go, I get a different answer than I thought,” he says.
He is wearing a new pair of shoes. Adidas in a bluish tone. Lately he has been looking at the French sports shoe brand Le Coq. This weekend Braden was visiting, and they shoe shopped together. Braden got four pairs and David got one. If he dies, he hopes Braden and Gauge will grow into his shoes.
“It’s not like ‘here’s something to remember me by.’ It’s a way to interact with people, and it takes the conversation away from the obvious,” he says.
Jennifer is brushing her teeth while Nui takes up most of the space in David and Jennifer’s bed. Movin’ rests in a dog bed in front Nui. Jennifer is not worried about David leaving them to her care. They are big and a handful, but they are a part of the family and she probably will need their cuddle and warmth that much more afterward, she says.
But right now, all they can do is to take a day at a time. If today’s answer is good news, he won’t have to go back for a check-up until August. That is why planning for the last states and for a trip to Iceland have been on their mind more lately, but David is conflicted: How can he take the time of work to travel, when he has been away for so long? He wants to make sure he can do his job, too.
“As long as I am alive, there’s uncertainty. When there’s no more uncertainty, I am dead. That’s the only thing I know for sure,” he says.