Gil Scarnati illustrates the power of the spirit over life’s tragedies

This article highlights the wonderful legacy that Dr. Scarnati provided the Health Science Center before his passing in February 2011.

scarnati gil

On osteopathic medicine and the practice he had to give up:

“Osteopathic medicine is an approach and philosophy of medicine which involves both the art and science of medicine. Yet further, it emphasizes treating the patient as a whole, entire human being, rather than a case, disorder or disease. It emphasizes the importance of the interaction and  relationship of all aspects of the person as patient, body, mind and spirit.   “It is an endeavor in wholeness, of completeness, and one that places just as great an emphasis upon medical expertise as it does upon understanding, empathy and the humane.   “I loved teaching my patients and answering their questions. Patients came in sick and anxious, and often I was able to allay their fears and anxieties, and to provide comfort, simply by listening and truly communicating with them. Although many physicians believe this humanistic way of medical practice has become impracticable and unrealistic, it is amazing how significant and productive a 15-minute patient visit can be.  “In retrospect, I think that which amazed me the most was the impact one can have on someone else’s life.”
~Gil Scarnati, DO



Until the day he broke his neck on an Australian beach, Gil Scarnati said practicing osteopathic medicine was a fundamental part of his identity and a source of gratification.

He was vacationing in Australia when a wave caught him up and slammed him head first on the beach, causing an injury similar to the one the late actor Christopher Reeve suffered while horse-back riding.

The specialists gave grim prognostications regarding his rehabilitation and recovery. Yet two years later, after two spinal reconstructions; the placement of titanium rods in his upper spine; two years of rehab, Pilates and yoga; and 11 months in a wheelchair; the determined Scarnati came back, to the amazement of his orthopedist, physiatrist and neurosurgeon.

Then two years later, fate intervened again. Unrelated to his previous injuries, Scarnati was diagnosed with a rare, progressive, and degenerative disease called nemaline rod myopathy. It strikes about one in a million people and is believed to be genetic or autoimmune. The disease so quickly ravaged his body that he was forced to give up the practice he loved.

“This truly broke my heart, because I realized there was no coming back,” Scarnati said. “I enjoyed teaching my patients – helping allay their fears by answering their questions and providing information that would help them manage their condition.”

He had been inspired to become an osteopathic physician by his older brother, also an osteopathic physician, a forensic psychiatrist and professor at the Ohio University College of Osteopathic Medicine.

“I saw the excellent medicine he practiced and how fulfilled he was,” Scarnati said. Despite his circumstances, Scarnati retains the talents to do anything he wishes. Fluent in three languages and able to read two more, he holds an undergraduate degree from Georgetown University in German and linguistics, and masters degrees from Virginia Commonwealth University (Psychology) and Texas State University (Cell and Molecular Biology). He has designed and built Jacobean- and Elizabethan-style furniture, and his designs, sculptures and furniture in his former home in the Dallas suburb of Highland Park were featured several times in Architectural Digest magazine. He had applied to and was accepted by several medical schools – both osteopathic and allopathic.

“There simply was never any doubt or deliberation,” said Scarnati, who graduated in 1990. “I chose to go to TCOM because I wanted to be an osteopathic physician. I also realized that TCOM would provide superior education and training. At TCOM I perceived an atmosphere of community, of emphasis upon shared values, and of professors and physicians who were deeply committed to their students and their patients.

“And now, 20 years later, I still see it. Technology and knowledge have advanced dramatically, but values are permanent. Quality, excellence and integrity will always endure.” That spirit, Scarnati believes, has helped TCOM and UNT Health Science Center thrive during a challenging economic time.

“UNT Health Science Center is flourishing because of the students, the faculty and the administrators – there are phenomenal people here,” he said. He’s more than a casual observer. Scarnati is a student again, negotiating the Health Science Center’s campus on board a scooter while pursuing a doctorate degree in neuroscience from the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences. “I want to be productive and contribute,” he said. It’s a logical progression for Scarnati. He was a family practitioner in Dallas, emphasizing HIV/AIDS medicine and serving as the principal researcher in numerous pharmaceutical studies of anti-retroviral medications. He had a rewarding and busy patient practice that he said was based on the osteopathic principle of “wholeness,” a quality that he believes is becoming rare.

“We are breaking down the component parts of medicine and learning more and more about them, but we are getting away from wholeness. When I closed my practice, many patients said they would never find another physician who cared for and about them as I did. I believe the most precious things you can give people are your time and your compassion.”

Scarnati finds the unique circumstances of his own life have provided insights of their own. He has directed in his last will and testament that $75,000 in proceeds from his estate be allotted for a scholarship to a deserving physically handicapped TCOM student – an act of generosity he originally intended to be private. But when presented with an opportunity to make the gift public, he decided “there might be some value in influencing and touching the lives of other TCOM alumni to realize the significance of ‘giving back’ and leaving a tangible expression of concern for one’s fellow man – and providing the opportunity to examine their own capacity and realize that if a disabled physician, who lives on disability income and savings, can provide a measure of support, they might be able to as well.” As he pursues his second doctoral degree, he gladly shares his insights. “Age is not a limiting factor,” he said. “I am actively pursuing a challenging PhD, but I do not regard it as a job or as a pastime.

Because of my age, my love of learning and teaching, and my passion for discovery, this is now a way of life.” And he’s learned that “your body is not everything.”

Young people think they are their body,” he said. “We are so much more than our bodies. We are, as individuals, 90 percent our mind, heart, spirit, intellect and talents. Young people who look in the mirror see their reflection and say ‘that’s me.’ As for myself, when I see my reflection in the mirror, knowing that I inhabit a body with
severe physical limitations, I tell myself, ‘that is the least important part of who I am.’”

North Texas Health & Science, 2010, Issue 3

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This page was last modified on June 10, 2015