Billings family shares journey with Alzheimer’s disease ahead of fundraising for a cure
BILLING – Alzheimer’s disease can turn the personality of a loved one into something completely different from what it used to be and turn the world of their family upside down. It is the sixth leading cause of death in adults in the United States, and scientists still do not fully understand the disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Thomas Brink, known to his family as Tom, suffered from an early case of Alzheimer’s disease and died in Billings after about seven years with the disease at the age of 57 in 2018.
“He was in his late 40s to early 50s when he started having personality changes,” said Tamara Nunley, Brink’s daughter.
Brink was an aircraft mechanic, aircraft inspector and was an aviator. He started his business, Genuine Aircraft Hardware Co., in 1984 in Lompoc, California, selling aircraft parts and doing mechanical work.
In California, Brink started a family of three with his wife, Pamela.
“My dad, he was frustrated with trying to find the gear so he figured I could buy it myself and sell the supplement,” Nunley said.
Nunley said the company was Brink’s baby, and he did a genius job with aircraft mechanics and processes cataloging the tens of thousands of parts that hold them together. He compiled a parts catalog that can be found on the shelves of aircraft stores around the world, called in the aviation community “The Little Blue Bible,” Nunley said.
“When he died it was shocking because he was so young, but tragic because he was so young. We have all lost someone. Not just me or my mother. We have all lost someone. extraordinary. The aviation industry has lost an extraordinary person, ”said Nunley. noted.
Nunley has worked for the family business all of her adult life and is now president of the company.
It was hard to believe the huge presence in their lives was starting to turn into Alzheimer’s, Nunley said.
“With him being as young as he was, that wasn’t even what crossed our minds at first. You know, there must be something else, he’s in his fifties, there’s no way it’s Alzheimer’s disease. Guess that’s advice for anyone experiencing personality changes. For anyone else who is experiencing changes in the personality of their loved ones. Or poor performance at work that was not characterful. Something else might be happening and there are resources to help determine that, ”Nunley said.
For Brink, the illness started out as little things, Nunley said. He poorly remembered details of work meetings or disagreed about where a tool was last placed on a family project.
“Different things like this seem innocent at first and slightly frustrating, but when you have all these experiences adding up and getting worse and worse and you realize there’s something else going on here. It’s not just him who is having a tough day, ”Nunley said.
After many tough decisions in the business, a lot of time spent finding the right diagnosis, and seeing too many doctors and specialists to count, the family moved to Billings in 2017 to seek better medical care for Brink.
Brink was an avid outdoorsman and enjoyed hunting, fishing and hiking. There had always been a plan to move the family and business to Montana, but with it came much more unfortunate circumstances, Nunley said.
Nunley said talking with her father about future outdoor expeditions was often a heartbreaking technique she used to redirect the conversation.
“There was a part of us that thought it could still happen. There was certainly her whole being who thought it could still happen. He was going to get better, ”Nunley said.
Over time, Brink’s condition worsened. Nunley said he eventually became unfit to drive, had resistance to change, and had meaningless thoughts or delusions.
“It wasn’t his personality either, but he had a lot of weird symptoms. Severe symptoms are common in the early stages (Alzheimer’s),” Nunley said.
The family’s first year in Billings, they participated in the Walk to End Alzheimer’s Disease and wore a blue-flowered pinwheel, symbolizing a person with Alzheimer’s disease. Similar walks are being organized across the country by the nonprofit Alzheimer’s Association. The group funds care, research and advocacy for people with Alzheimer’s disease, and has served as a source of information for the Brink family.
“It was a colorful, lively and hopeful event the seriousness of which he did not understand and it is a blessing in so many ways. He walked that first year and died just before the next event. He couldn’t reach us physically but was there in spirit, ”Nunley said.
The Brink family will virtually attend the march this year, Nunley said.
The Walk to End Alzheimer’s Disease is scheduled to take place in Billings on Sunday in a hybrid format. People are encouraged to visit the 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. open house at Rocky Mountain College before walking a two-mile route around campus. Or they can register online and walk where they feel comfortable. Click here to visit the race registration site.
Even though Thomas Brink is gone, Genuine Aircraft Hardware Co. is still there and in a new 10,000 square foot location in Billings. The family made the difficult choice to move to Montana during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The family started a new memorial wall in the Billings store to remember Brink’s legacy in the business he built from the ground up.
“It’s been super crazy and we’ve managed to survive that and our goal is to keep the business alive and keep its memory alive through the running of our business. We are never afraid to tell anyone about him because he was such an amazing person who should be here today, ”Nunley said.
To learn more about the company, visit its Facebook bag by clicking here.
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