August 27, 2007
Who could have predicted this?
By robin tricoles
A nattily dressed Kenneth Brigham appears rested and at ease despite his jam-packed schedule. A Treo and a cordless phone sit at attention inches from the doctor’s right hand. Seated at a small, modern conference table in his sunny office adorned with colorful paintings, medical textbooks, and photos of his wife, Arlene, Brigham talks about how he ended up at Emory — and at a magnificent place in his life.
A rock star is born
Little could Brigham have known that 50 years after the release of his hit single, “Oh, Julie,” he would become deeply involved in an innovative area of medicine known as predictive health.
While “Leave it to Beaver” was making its television debut in 1957, Brigham was finishing up high school in Nashville, Tenn. Shortly after graduation, he and four friends formed a band known as The Crescendos.
“This was the ’50s so this was three-chord vanilla rock, pretty simple stuff. I took up the guitar, but did mostly background vocals. We entered a few talent shows and began to win some prizes,” says Brigham. “A local disc jockey identified potentially promising groups, recorded them and sold the recordings. He came up with this song that a friend of his had written, and he said this is the song you ought to do. Nobody expected it, but the song took off. It took off first in Baltimore and then it started taking off everywhere else.”
Brigham takes a stand —a bandstand
“Oh, Julie” was such a hit that The Crescendos soon found themselves face to face with Dick Clark while performing on “American Bandstand.” Soon afterward, Brigham dropped out of college so he and the band could hit the road, traveling throughout the United States and Canada in a series of 30 one-nighters. “We traveled all over, a different town every night. I traveled with Frankie Avalon, LaVern Baker, the Everly Brothers, Jimmie Rogers, Paul Anka. It was a fairly lucrative year. I made enough money to go toward paying
for the rest of college and then medical school,” says Brigham.
Back to school
Brigham says he’s not sure exactly why he chose to attend medical school. Nonetheless, the choice proved to be the right one. “I was interested in biology, math and chemistry. Also, my father had prostate cancer and was ill for two or three years. I was 15 when he died, and at a very impressionable age. I was around doctors and hospitals a lot and impressed with the good the profession can do. And I think I was impressed with the excitement of being around a hospital,” he says.
Brigham decided to specialize in pulmonary medicine, and is now the associate vice president and director of the Emory/Georgia Tech Predictive Health Institute, which focuses on health maintenance — not the treatment of disease.
“I spend most of my waking hours thinking about human biology and the marvel that it is, the excitement of discovering intricacies of human biology and then the incredible opportunity to realize the practical results of that. I’m involved in how people behave and how people deal with their health,” says Brigham.
In his early 50s, Brigham suddenly learned firsthand how people deal with their health, or more accurately its demise. In 1996, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer — the same disease that killed his father 40 years ago at age 65.
“I’ve always been in excellent health and never had any health problems. I didn’t take very good care of myself and took my health for granted. But the cancer put things in perspective. I was a workaholic. The cancer forced me to realize one won’t live forever, and there are things that are more important than what you accomplish at work, although I still very much enjoy what I’m doing at work and can’t imagine doing anything else,” he adds.
One thing Brigham enjoys doing most is writing. So it was natural that soon after he was diagnosed with prostate cancer, he decided to keep a journal about his experience.
“I didn’t write it to be published. When I found out that I had cancer I thought it was going to be hard. And I didn’t want to be in denial. I wanted to deal with the issues that had to be dealt with,” says Brigham. “I enjoy writing so I thought I’d write down exactly what I was feeling as often as I could. As I thought about it, I realized that prostate cancer is such a common disease, such a common experience in middle-age men. It’s not necessarily a death sentence. It doesn’t necessarily ruin your life, but it does have a big impact. I thought maybe this would be helpful to people who have to go through that.”
His journal was published in 2001 as a book titled “Hard Bargain.”
Brigham goes to Hollywood
“Hard Bargain” is not Brigham’s latest book, nor his last. He has since completed another, this time in collaboration with Neil Shulman, also known as “Doc Hollywood,” a fellow writer and Emory physician and the basis of the 1991 movie “Doc Hollywood.”
“The first year we were here, the Department of Medicine had a Christmas party and Neil was there. He and I were standing around eating cheese. I didn’t know who he was, and we struck up a conversation, and he told me he had written a script for a movie and wanted it turned into a novel,” Brigham recalls. “I said I’d be interested in talking more about it, and I eventually took his script and wrote this book, and we self-published it. It’s really a weird one. It’s based on a script about a crazy psychiatrist.”
Brigham and Shulman have just completed yet another book — this one, says Brigham, includes Israeli-Palestinian relations, gripping characters, medical marvels, a convoluted plot and divine intervention.
A breath of fresh air
When Brigham isn’t working or writing, he spends his leisure time with his wife Arlene Stecenko, chief of the pulmonary division in the Department of Pediatrics. “We enjoy reading, traveling, going to museums, cooking. Really we enjoy just hanging out at home together,” says Brigham.
Sometimes home is a condominium in midtown Atlanta. Other times home is a little studio in Venice, Italy, a city Brigham had visited several times before he was married to Stecenko. But it was Stecenko, says Brigham, who “fell in love with Venice.” And that’s when Brigham said he started to fall in love with it, too.
“Arlene and I met many years ago when she was a fellow at Vanderbilt when we were both married to other people. She left Vanderbilt and over the years we ended up getting divorced and re-encountered one another,” says Brigham. “It turns out that was the most wonderful thing that’s ever happened to me.
“Unfortunately, my illness came not too long after we were together. But the illness made me appreciate how important relationships are in the big sense. It’s part of what keeps your soul together. It makes life such a pleasure. And I can’t imagine there’s anything or anyone else in the world that I could feel this way about.”