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Most people know Dr. Bill Barrick as the executive director of the award-winning Bellingrath Gardens and Home, but many people are unaware that malignant melanoma nearly cut Barrick’s life short.
“Usually 95 percent of the people who had what I had were dead within two years,” he said.
Barrick, who is this year’s honoree at USA Mitchell Cancer Institute Hope Cup Golf Tournament on May 11, was diagnosed with Stage 4 melanoma in 1979 when he was 33 years old and working as a horticulture professor at the University of Florida.
Fortunately, Barrick was at the right place at the right time. An oncologist affiliated with UF Health Shands Cancer Hospital suggested he join a national experimental immunotherapy study. “The doctor told me, ‘The stats for your kind of cancer are not very good, but if you undergo immunotherapy, you will have a 50 percent survival chance,’” Barrick recalled. “Ignorance was a blessing. Had I had access to the Internet back then, I would have been frightened more.”
A little over a year into his treatment in July 1980, Barrick took a job with Callaway Gardens and transferred his treatments to an oncologist at Emory Hospital that also was part of the experimental protocol.
“I feel really fortunate to have been in an environment where physicians were on the cutting edge of finding cures for various cancers,” he said.
Now age 70 and 38 years a cancer survivor, Barrick often reflects on how he beat the odds with the best treatment for him in the nick of time. Always positive, Barrick knows he is blessed he is to still be here, doing what he loves, helping create one of the most heavenly gardens on earth.
“With every successive doctor you go to, you have to check the cancer box and write in melanoma,” he said. “Many doctors are surprised to see I am still alive.”
Barrick said his experience has opened his eyes to two things. No one is guaranteed a long life, and one should not procrastinate when it comes to health.
“You have to be proactive,” he said. “You have to have your annual checkups. You have to be vigilant about your health. When I was diagnosed, the physician said, ‘If you had waited a couple more months, there may not have been anything we could do.’”
Barrick said he first noticed the irregular dark-colored mole on his right calf during a warm Thanksgiving in 1978 at his family home in Dothan.
His older sister, Jane, recently had a less-invasive melanoma removed from her right ankle.
“Jane had red hair like me and was fair-skinned,” he said. “Because I was wearing shorts, I showed them my mole on my leg, and my twin sister, Georgia, who was a medical technologist, told me to get it checked. I also promised my mom I would.”
Barrick put off that doctor visit until January 1979. A couple of days later, a surgeon removed the mole, leaving a permanent depression in his calf. Once doctors determined the mole to be malignant, they also removed lymph nodes in his right groin.
Looking back, he remembers getting seriously sunburned when he was little. “You know you don’t outgrow that.” Now he always wears sunscreen, sees a dermatologist twice annually and always is grateful. “I am obviously very lucky. I don’t know why I am alive versus someone else,” he said.
He says he viewed treatment as a minor inconvenience and focused on the positive throughout.
His survivorship strengthens his belief that he is still here for a reason. His wife, Jessica, agrees.
“When I reflect upon this, I know there was a purpose,” he said. “That was part of my destiny, to be part of these gardens and ensure they are nurtured and grow. Bellingrath Gardens is a place of beauty and serenity, and it gives people a lot of peace to walk in beautiful environments.”
Barrick manages the 65-acre historic estate and serves as a trustee for the Bellingrath Morse Foundation, the estate of Walter and Bessie Bellingrath. Under his direction, the gardens and home have become a major tourist destination on the Gulf Coast, attracting more than 125,000 visitors annually. Barrick has been Bellingrath’s executive director since 1999. Before that, he was executive vice president and director of Gardens at Callaway Gardens in Pine Mountain, Ga., for nearly 20 years.
Barrick said he is humbled to be this year’s MCI Hope Cup honoree, and he was impressed with cancer research being done at MCI. He realized on a recent tour of the facility that melanoma was one of MCI’s research specialties.
“It is an amazing facility, and I am impressed with the caliber of research going on there,” he said. “I also am deeply touched by being named the honoree. I hope more than anything else that by recognizing people that have survived, people will realize there are cures, and people are working on cures that will hopefully eradicate cancer in our lifetime.”
Bill Barrick will be speaking at the Hope Cup Lunch & Learn at 11:30 a.m. on May 11 at The Country Club of Mobile. Tickets, which are $25, may be purchased online through the Hope Cup Lunch and Learn page on eventbrite.com.
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