BILLINGS — Alzheimer's disease can turn a loved one's personality into something completely different than before and flip their family's world upside down. It's the sixth leading cause of death among adults in the United States, and scientists still don't completely understand the disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Thomas Brink, known by his family as Tom, suffered an early-onset case of Alzheimer's 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 some personality changes,” said Tamara Nunley, Brink's daughter.
Brink was a successful aircraft mechanic, aircraft inspector and was an aviator. He started up his business, Genuine Aircraft Hardware Co., in 1984 in Lompoc, California, selling airplane parts and doing mechanic work.
In California, Brink started a family of three kids with his wife, Pamela.
"My dad, he was frustrated trying to find hardware and so he figured, well I can just buy it myself and sell the extra," Nunley said.
Nunley said the business was Brink's baby and he did genius work with airplane mechanics and the processes to catalogue tens of thousands of parts that hold them together. He compiled a catalog of parts that sits on shelves at aircraft shops around the world, referred to in the aviation community as, "The Little Blue Bible," Nunley said.
"When he passed on, it was shocking because he was so young, but tragic because he was so young. We all lost someone. Not just me or my mother. We all lost someone amazing. The aviation industry lost someone amazing," Nunley said.
Nunley has been working for the family business her entire adult life and now serves as president of the company.
It was hard to believe the huge presence in their life was beginning to slip away to Alzheimer's, Nunley said.
“With him being as young as he was, that wasn’t what even crossed our minds at first. You know, there’s got to be something else going on he’s in his early 50s there’s no way it’s Alzheimer's. I guess that’s a piece of advice for anyone that is experiencing personality changes. For anyone else experiencing personality changes in their loved ones. Or poor work performance that was out of character. There could be something else going on and there are resources out there to help determine that," Nunley said.
For Brink, the disease started as little things, Nunley said. He would misremember details of work meetings or disagree about where a tool was last placed on a family project.
“Different things like that seem innocent at first and mildly frustrating, but when you have all those experiences that add up and compound and get worse and worse and you realize that there’s something else going on here. This isn’t just him having a rough day," Nunley said.
After many difficult decisions at the company, much time spent actually finding out the correct 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 loved hunting, fishing and hiking. There had always been a plan to move the family and business to Montana, but it came with much more unfortunate circumstances, Nunley said.
Nunley said talking with her father about future outdoor expeditions was often a heart-wrenching technique she used to redirect conversation.
“There was a part of us that thought that could still happen. There was, definitely his whole being thought that could still happen. He was going to get better," Nunley said.
As time went on, Brink's condition worsened. Nunley said he eventually became unfit to drive, had resistances to change and experienced thoughts that don't make sense, or delusions.
"That also was not his personality, but he had a lot of odd symptoms. Severe symptoms are common in early-onset (Alzheimers),” Nunley said.
The family's first year in Billings, they participated in the Walk to End Alzheimer's and carried a blue flower pinwheel, symbolizing a person who has Alzheimers. Similar walks are hosted across the country by the nonprofit group, Alzheimer's Association. The group funds care, research and advocacy for people with Alzheimer's, and served as a resource of information for the Brink family.
“It was a colorful, lively, hopeful event that he did not understand the gravity of and that is the blessing in a lot of ways. He walked that first year and passed away right before the next event. He didn’t get to join us in body but was there in spirit," Nunley said.
The Brink family will attend the walk virtually this year, Nunley said.
The Walk to End Alzheimer's is scheduled to take place in Billings on Sunday in a hybrid format. People are encouraged to visit the open house from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. at Rocky Mountain College before walking a two-mile route around campus. Or they can register online and walk wherever they feel comfortable. Click here to visit the race registration website.
Even though Thomas Brink is gone, Genuine Aircraft Hardware Co. is still around and in a new 10,000 square foot location in Billings. The family made the tough choice to relocate to Montana during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The family has started a new memorial wall in the Billings shop to remember Brink's legacy at the company he built from the ground up.
“It’s been super crazy and we’ve managed to survive this and our goal is to keep the company alive and to keep his memory alive through the operation of our company. We’re never afraid to tell anyone about him, because he was such an amazing person that should be here today," Nunley said.
To learn more about the business, visit its Facebook bage by clicking here.