Emory Medicine, Spring 1994

Through sheer force of energy, Dr. Dorothy Brinsfield set the stage for a world-class program in pediatric cardiology.

A Leader in Good Time

by Karon Schindler

When Dottie Brinsfield first announced that she was going to be a doctor, she was regarded with skepticism. "I was in first grade," she recalls, "and people just laughed. But I really did know even then that's what I wanted to do."

As she grew up and continued to insist that she wanted to be a doctor, she continued to meet with skepticism. Women just didn't go into medicine in those days. Her father tried to persuade her to go to art school, but her mind was made up. Young people at that time often applied to medical school earlier in their academic careers than they do today. At age 18, Dottie Brinsfield interviewed with Emory's medical school, which, after much debate, had admitted its first female student just the year before, in 1943. Although it was not uncommon then for male students to gain acceptance as young as 15, Dean Russell Oppenheimer had his doubts. "A pretty girl like you will want to get married and have children," he said, reflecting the conventional wisdom of the time. He added that he would guarantee her admission if she could wait till she was 21.

She knew what she wanted, however, and saw no need to wait. She gained acceptance to the Medical College of Georgia, where she began her medical studies, as was customary at the time, during her senior year in college. She received her baccalaureate in 1947 and her MD degree three years later in 1950.

As it turned out, Dottie Brinsfield fulfilled her lifelong dream of becoming a doctor, and as it turned out, Emory got to claim her after all. She not only realized her dream, but she also became a leader in the budding specialty of pediatric cardiology. Moreover, she served as a role model for hundreds of young women and men who, like her, wanted to pursue a career in medicine.

Dr. Brinsfield's retirement from Emory's medical school last August capped a career that spanned four decades. The determination she first exhibited in childhood paid off during those years. She fought hard for her patients, her specialty, and her students, and she won deep and abiding respect and affection from those who knew her along the way.

Dr. Brinsfield first fell in love with pediatrics when she interned at the University of Texas at Galveston. Exhausted from a rotation in surgery and down to a weight of only 82 pounds, she found her niche in a specialty that for her combined challenge with pure joy. "The patients were just adorable," she says.

She came back to Atlanta in 1951, serving first as resident and then as chief resident in pediatrics in Emory's training program. She then went into private practice for seven years in demographically diverse west Atlanta. Here, she treated typhoid, tuberculosis, and polio, among other ills, and found that all too often there was little she could do for children with heart disease. "One child came into my office with a heart murmur so loud you could hear it with the naked ear," she says. "It was sad to see babies die of problems like aortic stenosis, which today are so easily diagnosed and treated."

Having served on Emory's volunteer faculty during her years in private practice, Dr. Brinsfield returned to Emory full time in 1960, when she was awarded the school's first fellowship in pediatric cardiology. She joined the Emory faculty in 1963, at a salary of $10,000 per year, and rose through the academic ranks to become full professor and director of pediatric cardiology.

In this position, which she assumed in 1970, she began to build the pediatric cardiology team at Emory that now has more than 16 physicians. In 1970, though, the buck pretty much stopped with her. "I was on call every night for a year," she says. "When we recruited Bill Plauth to come here from Boston in 1971, I was so tired that I fainted during his interview."

Dr. Plauth remembers her, conversely, as a "bundle of energy. She was a consummate clinician," he says. "Seeing her enjoy her patients always endeared her to me. It was hard for us to get to know each other though." he adds. "We traded off being on call every other night and covered the pediatric cardiology services at both Grady Hospital and Egleston Children's Hospital. We had time to do little more than wave at each other en route from one facility to the other."

Dr. Plauth credits Dr. Brinsfield with pioneering pediatric cardiology in Georgia and the Southeast. "She carried the load until we could build a critical mass of expertise here," he says.

"Dottie had been in private practice, and we both had a special fondness for referring doctors. We traveled all over the state, getting the word to doctors and nurses that we could save blue babies. We had beepers even in those days," he adds, "and it was hard to carry on a conversation or eat a meal without the beeper constantly interrupting."

"Whenever a doctor called, Dottie was always flexible and always had an open ear. If a doctor wanted to know if we could take a baby for treatment, our answer was always yes. The more apparent it became to doctors that if they sent us a baby they'd get it back alive, the more patients they sent us," says Dr. Plauth.

"Dottie also helped mobilize the forces back home. Until we could get more of our own pediatric specialists to perform cardiac procedures, she enlisted the help of those who usually saw adult patients. She fought hard for us to have our own cath lab, and Drs. [Bruce] Logue and [Willis] Hurst went out of their way to make a place for us. Everyone respected her." (This respect was evidenced by the fact that Dr. Brinsfield was named the school's first William Patterson Timmie Professor of Pediatrics in 1974.)

With the recruitment of Drs. Elizabeth Nugent and Ken Dooley in 1975 to run pediatric cath and echo labs, respectively, pediatric cardiology at Emory was well on its way to being the world-class program it is today.

Pioneering a pediatric specialty

Dr. Brinsfield first fell in love with pediatrics on a rotation as an intern. "The patients were just adorable," she says.

Dr. Brinsfield's career at Emory spanned four decades. Now that she is fully retired, she hopes to make time for painting lessons, travel, and writing.

That same year, 1975, Dr. Evangeline Papageorge was thinking about retiring from her position as executive associate dean for student affairs. She was looking for just the right person to take her place, someone who enjoyed students, someone who could be both firm and compassionate. She turned to Dr. Brinsfield.

"When Dr. Brinsfield told me she would accept the job," says Dr. Papageorge, "I told Dean [Arthur] Richardson, 'Now I can retire in peace.'"

The dean for student affairs serves not only to enforce the school's academic standards but also to help students cope with any number of difficult problems - financial, personal, academic - that could impede their success in medical school. The dean for students is confidante, advocate, disciplinarian, and often surrogate parent.

Dr. Brinsfield was well suited to fill this role. She had a long track record of successful interaction with students in her years of teaching, having been recognized as Most Outstanding Faculty Member by the class of 1971.

"She's an honest, empathetic, caring person, someone you know you can always turn to," says Dr. Barbara Bruner, '56M, a fellow pediatrician who has known Dr. Brinsfield for more than 30 years. "When she wrote student evaluations, she always managed to convey the truth - she could see the good qualities even in marginal students."

For her part, Dr. Brinsfield knew that in joining the medical school administration she would be leaving one job she loved for another. The most rewarding part for her in the dean's role, she says, was seeing students struggle their way out of difficulties and then do well.

Often it was she who helped them in their struggle, offering not only moral support but also practical assistance. She did what she felt was deserved and needed, and if dire situations called for dire actions she was resourceful and unhesitating.

When missionaries, for example, brought to this country from Uganda a bright young man who wanted to be a doctor, she did more than merely find him financial aid. She met him at the airport, gave him towels and linens from her own home, and helped him find clothes and other necessities. And when a young female student found herself unexpectedly stranded in Atlanta with no money before Thanksgiving holiday, it was Dr. Brinsfield who generously came to her rescue.

In addition to these actions on behalf of individuals, Dr. Brinsfield worked hard to increase scholarship funds available to the medical student body as a whole. Thanks in part to her work and to generous donations from alumni and others, medical scholarship funds doubled several times over in the past decade. "Still," she says, "we need to work harder because expenses always seem to go up faster than donations." Dr. Brinsfield retired from her full-time position as associate dean in 1991. She stayed on in the medical school part time, however, working as consultant to the dean and editing a newsletter for former residents in pediatrics. She retired full time from Emory last summer ("I was ready," she says.) and looks forward now to travel, painting lessons, and other diversions for which she has had little time thus far.

In her years here, Dr. Brinsfield has been recognized numerous times for her accomplishments. She received honorary membership in Alpha Omega Alpha, the Class of 1991 named her an honorary class member, and the Medical Alumni Association gave her its Award of Honor.

While she is pleased and touched by these gestures of appreciation, she would insist that it is she who should be grateful - that in a life spent in service to others, the privilege indeed has been all hers.

The right combination of qualities

When Dr. Brinsfield agreed to become associate dean of student affairs in 1975, Dr. Evangeline Papageorge told then Dean Arthur Richardson, "Now I can retire in peace."


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