The story of our pastor, Doug Brinkley, and how he came to be where he is today is an inspiring and heartwarming story that proves without a shadow of doubt that anything is possible with faith and a strong belief in God. It's a story of near personal tragedy, a story of incredible strength, and a story of God's mercy.
In his own words, he describes his family life, "My name is Doug Brinkley and I am a beloved child of God. My family and I worship at Pine Ridge Presbyterian Church. My wife, Debbie, the love of my life, and I have been married for 35 years and we have known each other our entire lives. We grew up on neighboring farms and our parents were good friends, so we grew up visiting and playing together. Debbie was a social worker for Hospice for several year but a few years ago, she decided to return to school for a second degree, graduating in May of 2006 with a BS in Nursing. She now works in the Palliative Unit at Forsyth Medical Center where she gives care to the terminally ill and the dying. She truly is a servant of our Lord."
"Our daughter, Ellen, has worked for a group of doctors in Winston-Salem since her graduation from college. She and her husband, Kelly, were married two years ago and I not only had the privilege of walking her down the aisle, I also had the privilege of officiating at her wedding."
"Our son, Joel graduated from the Motorcycle Mechanics Institute in Orlando, Florida, where he learned how to build and be authorized to work on Harley-Davidsons, his dream. He now works for Smokin' Harley-Davidson in Winston-Salem. In January, 2007, he and his wife, Annie, gave us our perfect gift from God, a gift that came at just the right time in our lives, a beautiful little girl named Lilliana Sophia, and in 2009 they gave us another precious gift. Her name is Corrina and she looks like just her older sister, Lilliana."
Doug joined the Winston-Salem Police Department and by 1996, had worked his way up to Administrative Sergeant and was assigned to the Chief of Police. A career in the police department had been his dream and he truly loved his job. But then, near tragedy struck when he was forced to retire due to severe heart problems.
In the early 1990's he contracted a viral infection that damaged his heart. The initial diagnosis was V-tac but within months, he had developed cardiomyopathy and congestive heart failure. The ejection fraction or pumping capacity for his heart, diminished to 25%. In time, the doctors found a regimen of medicines that stabilized his condition and his pumping capacity rose to around 35 percent. Still, in 1996, his law enforcement career was over. He was forced to give up the one thing that he felt at the time was the most important thing in his life.
God had other plans for him.
"And how did I feel?" Doug asked. "I was angry, frustrated, but I was also very frightened. But you know when God closes a door, He opens a window. The opportunity to tutor at-risk children at a local elementary school opened up for me. I worked with them in their reading and writing, preparing them for their end of grade tests. God blesses us in so many ways that we need to be thankful and praise God. But you know, sometimes it's tough to be thankful when you are sick. Sometimes it's tough to be thankful when you are denied something you've set your heart on. Sometimes it's tough to be thankful when you lose someone or something you love. But as thankless as we might prefer to be, we find words in scripture that tell us we are wrong. From the third chapter of Colossians, verse 17, 'whatever you do in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus giving thanks to God the Father through Him,' and my own personal favorite comes from Paul's first letter to the Thessalonians, chapter 5, verse 18, 'Be thankful in all circumstances for that is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.' We read it, we try to live it, but it can be tough sometimes."
He went on to say, "Debbie and I have been very active in the church. We were both Elders, we had taught Sunday School and Bible School over the years, we had also been the youth leaders for many years and even led worship services when needed, but something was missing for me. I needed a closer relationship with God. You see, I never really had that mountain top experience."
In the summer of 2003, Pine Ridge hosted a meeting of the small Presbyterian churches from Surry and Stokes Counties.
"Besides all being small congregations, we all were looking to call a minister. I wanted to do my part in helping to take care of our small churches, but I really didn't know what to do or how to go about it."
The Associate Presbyter was in charge of that meeting and he told the group about this wonderful thing called the Presbyterian Pilgrimage. Doug liked what he was hearing so he asked for an application at the end of the meeting.
"If we only allow ourselves to be open to God's Grace, God will be there and God's Grace will be sufficient. So how does God help us? God gives us a new vision, God gives us a new lens through which to see the world."
This was one of the many turning points in Doug's life.
"The Doug Brinkley my sponsor left at Camp Hanes was rather apprehensive about what might take place that weekend, but the Doug Brinkley that came home on Sunday evening was a changed man. I had changed because of the love and amazing grace of Jesus Christ. You see, that weekend, at the foot of that mountain, I gave my heart to God and my life has not been the same. For me, that weekend truly was the mountaintop experience I had longed for."
When he came home that Sunday evening, Debbie knew he had changed. "When I walked into the house, Debbie, who has known me my entire life, looked at me and asked, 'Are you going to be a preacher'?"
"Well, I began to cry and said, I really don't know but I had just been through one of the most beautiful experiences of my life and she said, 'I know, it's all over your face, but I don't know if I'm ready to be a preacher's wife'. We had a good laugh but you know, God works in mysterious ways. On that weekend, I saw where God was leading me and I promised God that wherever he led me that I would go. Shortly after that weekend, I registered for classes through the University of Dubuque's Theological Seminary in their Commissioned Lay Pastor Program, completing the program in May of 2006, about the same time Debbie was completing her studies through Winston-Salem State University."
Sixteen years earlier, Doug's doctors had told him to get his affairs in order because he probably would not live a year and he prayed to God to just let him live long enough to see his son get his Eagle Scout rank in the Boys Scouts and his prayers were answered. At that time, he was taking 39 pills a day and things ran rather smoothly for the next few years.
But in the spring of 2006, just as he and Debbie were officially beginning their second careers, things went haywire. Doug noticed a drastic change in his energy level. He began coughing more and began to retain fluids in places that normally had not been a problem.
It was time for his quarterly cardiology appointment and the echo showed his pumping capacity at an all time low at 23 percent. Further tests showed that he needed a diffibullator which was implanted on June 1, 2006 but by mid-July, he was back in the hospital with heart and kidney failure.
"At that time, my doctor told me that she wanted to continue what she called a workup and she introduced me to someone I would call my new best friend. His name is Vinay Thohan, the new Medical Diretor for the Heart Transplant program at WFUBMC."
"2006 was quite a roller coaster ride for our entire family, with its ups and downs and hills and valleys. Tests, hospital stays, graduations, but on October 24 at the fall meeting of Salem Presbytery, I was officially commissioned as the pastor for Francisco Presbyterian Church, one of those small churches I mentioned earlier. And I was formally installed in a beautiful service on November 26, 2006. The scripture used for the installation sermon was from Ezekiel 36, where God gives you a new heart of flesh."
"Two days later, on November 28, 2006, I received the official notification from UNOS that I was on the heart transplant list. I was initially told it would take eight to ten months before I would receive a new heart, but over the next four weeks, I grew weaker each day. By Christmas morning what little energy I had was gone. I knew if something didn't change for the better, I would never see my granddaughter who was due in just a few days. On Friday, Deember 29, I was scheduled for a heart catherization. At that time they found my heart was pumping at 15 percent."
"Dr. Tohan told me, no, he promised me that I would be alright, that I would get a new heart."
"I don't believe that God ever intended for me to die from a weak, sick heart, and what I have come to believe during these last few years is that every event in my life was part of my journey of faith. It was all part of God's plan for me to be forced to retire from a career I loved, a move that showed me just how much my family meant to me. To working with children, which gave me the patience I desperately needed, to my experience through Pilgrimage. These events helped prepare me for the heart transplant and the months and months of struggling with weakness and pain."
"I knew in my heart that whether I lived or whether I died that God would be there and that God wold take care of me. That I would be alright because through God who loves us and gives His Grace, I would be a winner either way. I was prepared to live but I was also prepared to die."
At 3:35 A.M. the following morning, Doug's nurse who happend to be a very good friend and the heart transplant coordinator came to his room in CCU and told him that they were on their way to Kentucky to pick up his new heart.
"My new heart. I've been asked how I felt at that moment. Well, I truly felt the presence of the Lord there with me."
The team flew to Kentucky and picked up the heart. When the Lear jet returned and landed in Winston-Salem, Doug was taken to the operating room and prepped. The surgeons were ready to remove Doug's old heart but waited until they knew for sure that the new heart had arrived at the hospital. When the team came through the front door of the hospital with the new heart, Doug's surgeons immediately went to work.
"When I opened my eyes, I praised God for giving me another new day and another chance at life. We tend to take our days for granted when everything is going good, but each and every day is truly a very precious gift from God. Each and every day is a day laden with opportunites to love and serve our Lord Jesus Christ in everything we say and do."
"I thanked God that through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, I had been given a new spiritual heart at Pilgrimage and I thank God for giving me that perfect gift of grace, that very precious gift of a heart of the flesh through a very special family in eastern Kentucky. A family who had the love and courage to offer another person a chance of life while under the intense grief of losing a loved one, their son."
"The young man was 18 years old, he was 6 feet, 3 inches tall and I was told he was big and strong and had a big, strong heart. God has now given me the strength to do what it is he wants me to do with the rest of my life. Where he leads me, I will follow. God led me home to Pine Ridge back in February of 2008, and I know that is where I am supposed to be. I am the Pastor of the church where I have been a member for the past 35 years."
"Our Lord is always with us. Anguish is no stranger to our Lord. Jesus suffered, Jesus died and Jesus was raised from the dead. I have hope even when the water comes up to my neck, I have hope even when I sink into the mire where there is no foothold. I have hope even when the floodwaters engulf me. I have hope because love has been poured out on me by God and my neighbors."