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April 20, 2017
An excerpt of this story appears in the spring 2017 edition of the Northwest Alumni Magazine. To view the current issue of the magazine, click here.
Dr. Gary Tunell figured when he graduated from Northwest Missouri State University in 1967 that he would become a college professor like his brother-in-law, the late Jim Wright, a 1957 graduate.
“When he graduated from Northwest, I remember him pulling up in our front yard in a 1958 Chevrolet, and he moved to Colorado to teach in a public school system and he did it until he retired,” Tunell said. “I thought, ‘Man that’s a good life. You know, new car, beautiful wife.’ And I thought, ‘I want to be a college student.’ It beats working on the farm, because we got up every morning and milked the cows at five o’clock.”
But as Tunell furthered his education, he concluded he needed to help people find solutions to health issues, particularly those afflicted by serious neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, epilepsy and Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Today, Tunell is a neurologist affiliated with Baylor University Medical Center at Dallas, and he is active in research to find cures for those diseases. He recently stepped away from his role as chief of neurology at Baylor after 21 years to devote more time to his private practice and research.
“There are animals who get muscular dystrophy, same as humans do,” he said. “I became interested in that and I thought, ‘I respect the animals who gave the ultimate sacrifice, but we didn’t help them.’ I thought maybe we could help people.”
Tunell is among 14 doctors practicing with Texas Neurology, the largest group of private neurologists in the state of Texas. It draws patients from the Dallas-Fort Worth area as well as New Mexico, Oklahoma and Louisiana.
He also serves as clinical professor of neurology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas. He serves on multiple advisory boards and has authored several articles about neurologic diseases.
Tunell believes researchers are on the cusp of a cure for Alzheimer’s. In recent clinical trials he administers, patients have received an antibody intravenously to dissolve proteins that clump in the brain, called amyloid. Getting rid of the amyloid, however, has not restored patients’ memories.
“What we need is a better way to predict earlier on, and then we will have a cure within two to four years, I think,” he said. “If I knew you were building up amyloid in your brain, I could give you that medicine before you became forgetful and that would keep you from getting Alzheimer’s.”
Though a cure for neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s remain elusive, Tunell is motivated to help families affected by them. Research and development by pharmaceutical companies has helped stifle the progression of diseases like multiple sclerosis, which offered just one medication when Tunell started practicing and now has 14.
“Almost everything that I see is treatable,” he said. “We don’t always cure it, but we keep it under control day by day and year by year. … Some of our patients break out into tears because of the diagnosis and their outlook, and then they get up and hug us and say, ‘Thank you for letting me know what to expect.’ We do the best we can to enlighten them about their diagnosis.”
Tunell was born in Maryville at St. Francis Hospital, making him the first of his nine brothers and sisters to be born in a hospital. He grew up in northwest Missouri, helping on his father’s and then his uncle’s farms, and he attended Horace Mann Laboratory School on the Northwest campus for a short time.
When the time came for Tunell to pursue a college degree, he headed to Northwest, where his dad worked on the maintenance staff. “I didn’t even think about going anywhere else,” he said.
Tunell used the knowledge he gained while farming and his interests in laboratory science to pursue a biology degree at Northwest. He worked nights and weekends as an orderly at St. Francis Hospital to pay his bills.
“It just seemed like the right thing for me to do,” he said. “When I finished, I thought I wanted to be a university professor like my brother-in-law. I got a scholarship to go to Kansas State to work on a Ph.D. program. During that, I decided I better apply for medical school and was lucky enough to get into the University of Missouri.”
Tunell completed his doctor of medicine degree at the University of Missouri-Columbia and expanded his knowledge of nerve and muscle disorders. From there, he moved on to the University of Texas Southwestern and Parkland Hospital to complete his internship and residency. He served two years in the U.S. Air Force and then began his private practice at Baylor University Medical Center in 1981.
Tunell says he is “forever grateful” for the opportunity he had to attend Northwest. He remembers fondly the influence science faculty members such as Dr. David Easterla, William Garrett, Dr. David Smith and Dr. J. Gordon Strong had on him – and their passion for education.
Northwest, Tunell says, opened a door to all the opportunities he’s had since earning his bachelor’s degree – from receiving a scholarship to attend graduate school at Kansas State to running clinical trials in search of a cure for Alzheimer’s.
“It prepared me very well with all of the basic sciences,” he said. “I enjoyed every class that I took. When I took geology and botany, I liked those even though I didn’t want to pursue that. I thought they were great professors at that time, and I think I was very well prepared to go on to graduate school and even medical school.”
Mark Hornickel, Communication Manager
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