By Bobby Hundley, UNC Health Foundation
Patti Brenton had an infectious personality.
When it came time to create a slideshow of photos to celebrate Patti’s life earlier this year, the funeral director in charge found the task of culling the selection of images nearly impossible. Instead of the usual 20 to 25 photos, friends and family were greeted by hundreds of pictures of Patti and her glowing smile, one that always drew others to her.
She had a smile and a personality that lit up a room, according to Brenton’s family. “She had this infectious laugh and was always full of optimism. Patti had a philosophy of life to always be kind. That was her guiding principle – if you always were kind, that kindness would spread. And that the kindness would always be repaid.”
It’s fitting, then, that Patti would become so closely connected to Dr. Wendy Brewster, the director of the UNC Center for Women’s Health Research.
“She made Patti feel like she was her only patient…”
Patti was initially treated for cervical cancer at UNC two winters ago, but the disease progressed significantly last fall. Patti and her family as well as Dr. Brewster and her team on the sixth floor of the women’s center were suddenly in a difficult spot.
“You have this patient who has done everything right and to go from an early cancer to an advanced cancer, that was challenging,” Dr. Brewster said.
Despite those challenges, however, Dr. Brewster said that Patti was always receptive to hearing what she needed to hear.
“The great thing about Ms. Brenton was she was a really effective communicator,” Dr. Brewster said. “She listened well and had just bottomless empathy for everyone in the room.”
According to her family, that empathy was a two-way street.
“Patti thought the world of Dr. Brewster. She is just a wonderful person. Even if her visits were just 15 minutes or 30 minutes, during that time period, Dr. Brewster made Patti feel like she was her only patient, and that she was her most important patient. She just totally focused on Patti. You could feel it, and Patti just fell in love with her.”
For Patti, Dr. Brewster and her team were more than just care providers. They were partners in a process that is overwhelmingly difficult for everyone involved, the family said.
“As it became apparent that Patti was going to die in some short length of time, Dr. Brewster not only was helpful in conveying her medical condition, she also was very helpful in talking about life and relationships and giving her guidance on how to deal with some of the non-medical issues that arise. The way that Dr. Brewster communicated Patti’s condition was very straightforward and honest but at the same time it was always hopeful. She supported Patti in every respect throughout the entire process.”
A shared respect and a special relationship
Patti was immediately a favorite of the sixth floor staff, something that would come as no surprise to those who knew and loved her most.
“Everyone on our team – from the professionals who checked her in, to the nurses who took her vitals, to people who roomed her, to chemotherapy nurses – all felt respected by Ms. Brenton and her family,” Dr. Brewster said. “That goes a long way, people will jump through the extra hoops because you develop this personal connection that goes beyond the care you get.”
As much as the doctors, nurses and staff adored Patti, Patti and her family shared that affection.
“She was just so thankful for all the staff at UNC,” the family said of Patti. “Yes, Dr. Brewster is one of the best in her field in both the clinical and research aspects, but she possesses this additional talent of empathetically guiding patients through the entire care process. We can’t overstate what a wonderful physician and person Dr. Brewster is and how grateful we are to her entire team.”
Making an impact on the future
Patti knew early on that she wanted to find a way to support the work of Dr. Brewster and her team. Patti, who had a passion for women’s health, was always eager to use her situation to help others. When she developed a rare condition near the end of her life, she was especially pleased to allow residents and other medical professionals to use her example as a learning experience.
Patti and her family had discussed different ways of raising funds and awareness of the work happening at UNC, but her health declined quickly in early 2021. After a three-year battle with cancer, Patti passed away on March 27. The family knew that keeping their commitment to support Dr. Brewster would be a key part of Patti’s legacy.
“We intended to donate whether Patti lived or died to help clinical care and research toward women’s health. We just wanted to find a way to return what UNC had done for us and what Dr. Brewster had done for us.”
An initial gift of $100,000 has been designated for gynecologic oncology, specifically to support Dr. Brewster and her team, establishing a permanent fund where it will live on in honor of Patti. For Dr. Brewster, it’s a lasting tribute to a person who was so special to so many.
“Honestly, humbled to the floor,” Dr. Brewster said of her initial reaction to the gift. “I know that I don’t have the tools to cure everybody from cancer, but it doesn’t mean that I don’t want to. It doesn’t mean that I don’t have disappointment or regret. The fact that within this immense grief they can look back and do that, it’s such an honor.”
Kindness informed everything in Patti’s life, and her desire to share that with the world was perhaps her defining characteristic.
“She made that impact,” Dr. Brewster said. “She was an example for all of us. She was incredibly patient because she trusted that we were doing everything that we could. Her attitude paid off over and over and over again.”
For more information on supporting the work of Dr. Brewster and the UNC Center for Women’s Health Research and the Patricia Lee Brenton Fund for Excellence, contact Leslie H. Nelson-Bernier at email@example.com.