Passion behind the practice ‘I was not handed anything in my life’
Liz and Dennis Scribner

‘I was not handed anything in my life’

Dr. Dennis Scribner was bound to make a better life for himself. So he summoned his determination and drive to meet the ambitious goal of becoming a physician while building the family life he never had growing up.

When commitment, determination and dedication take root and blossom, it may seem as if nothing is impossible. Dreams are realized. Goals are met. Life is filled with rewards and accomplishments.

But when motivation and drive wane and wither, determination may fly away like leaves in an autumn wind.

For Dennis Scribner, MD, the latter was never an option.

Commitment is why he helped raise his baby sister while his single mother worked nights as a waitress.

Determination is what helped him emerge from a difficult childhood to become the first member of his family to graduate college.

Motivation helped him complete multiple marathons and triathlon events and earn a martial arts black belt.

Drive sent him across the country building medical practices along with his reputation as a gynecologic oncologist and an advocate for patients.

Dedication is reserved for his family, one that that faced life-changing cancer challenges and took in a welcomed, but unexpected, child. 

“I think what separates me from some other people Is the idea of determination and what it takes to get to where you want to be,” Dr. Scribner says. “I've learned over the years about hard work and making goals and working hard to achieve those goals. I’ve learned about creating sacrifices to fulfill those goals. I was not handed anything in my life or career.”

Dennis Scribner

‘I had to play a parent’

Dennis Scribner was born in Danbury, Connecticut, the oldest of two siblings. His was a blue-collar world, filled with working-class neighbors and relatives, none of whom advanced past high school. His father was an electrician, his mother a waitress.

When Dr. Scribner was 10, his world was split in half. His mother and father separated and later divorced. In his new world, Dr. Scribner was a student by day and parent by night, looking after his sister while his mother worked the evening shift at a nearby restaurant.

On weekends, the Scribner kids stayed with their dad, who began drinking heavily after his marriage collapsed.

“I’d be with my father helping him with his chores and activities to help maintain the house,” he says. “It wasn't the best childhood because of the nature of things. And my dad had an alcohol problem and was challenged with emotional issues with the divorce. So I had to play a parent for a long time.”

While committed to his family, young Dennis had an eye on a better way forward. In school, he excelled at science and developed an interest in biology and physiology–which turned out to be his ticket to meeting the goals he set at a very young age.

“My goal was always to be a physician,” he says. “I didn't know what type of physician, but it was always something I wanted to do to help people. I was good with science and thought it was interesting.

“I had this lofty goal to become the first person in my entire family to go on to college. I was going to be the person who broke the mold from carpenters and electricians and laborers to going on to college to get a higher degree.”

‘It was a turning point’

Going to college and medical school had been part Dr. Scribner’s plan since he was a boy, but his academic journey presented life-changing events he never expected.

He attended the College of Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, believing that investing in a private-school education would eventually help him get into medical school. His strategy, while requiring him to rack up expensive student loans, proved sound. But dreams of becoming a doctor nearly evaporated his freshman year.

“I didn't do well my first year in college,” he says. “When I got back home for the summer between my first and second year of college, my grades came out and I got a C in chemistry. I’d been used to getting A’s in everything.”

The minor bump in the road was also an opportunity for others to sow the seeds of doubt.

“My father told me I was wasting my time with college and spent a fortune on it for no reason,” he recalls. “At that point, I made a big change in my life and would do whatever I could to focus on my education. I became determined and focused and got straight A’s after that. It was a turning point in my life.”

It was also at Holy Cross where Dr. Scribner met a pre-med student named Elizabeth Gay. Drawn to each other early in school, they developed a friendship in freshman year that blossomed into a relationship, even after Liz switched her major to economics and accounting. Liz lived in Cheshire, Connecticut, and Dennis gave her rides home during school breaks. They started dating in senior year.

“We were college sweethearts,” he says. “One night, we were out at some party, and she says to me, ‘I'm gonna marry you.’”

They got married three years later.

“She’s put up with me for 32 years,” he says. “I'm high energy and kind of focusing and going. She's just the opposite. She likes time alone. She enjoys quiet time and is super organized. We balance each other out.”

Already strained by crushing student loan debt for his private undergraduate education, Dr. Scribner turned to his state school—the University of Connecticut—to attend medical school. Again, it was all part of the plan.

While on a wait list for admission, he took a year off and worked in a medical lab to help pay down some debt and save what he could until he “was lucky enough to get into the state medical school.” It was there that Dr. Scribner’s medical path steered him toward gynecologic oncology under the most unfortunate circumstances.

“When I was in medical school,” he says, “my wife’s mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.”

Liz and Dennis Scribner

‘I got adopted into my wife's family’

While his own family life was fragmented and often less than supportive, Dr. Scribner found stability with Liz’s family.

“They were more of a centralized unit, as opposed to my family, which was all over the place and doing their own thing,” he says. “It was easy to fit into my wife's family. They'd have Sunday dinners, and everybody would come to the house for barbecues and those types of things. So, I basically got adopted into my wife's family, which was great. I'm very fortunate for that.”

It was during his time in medical school that Liz’s mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Still learning his craft, Dr. Scribner lent his support in multiple ways, as a husband and son-in-law and as a burgeoning medical professional.

“My mother-in-law was a very strong individual,” Dr. Scribner says. “She was not a very open person. And she struggled for three-plus years with advanced ovarian cancer. Given where I was in my medical career, I got to help her some and be supportive of her that way. I tried to be very supportive of my wife's family.”

The family learned later in her mother’s diagnosis that Liz, her mother and her sister carried breast cancer (BRCA) gene mutations. These inherited anomalies are a leading risk factor for breast cancer and ovarian cancer. Liz’s sister eventually was diagnosed with breast cancer, and Liz underwent a double mastectomy to reduce her risk of the disease.

“It was all preventative, you know,” he says. “She had a mammogram that showed there was some kind of spot on her breast. A biopsy found some atypical cells that were not cancer. But there was a good chance they would have become cancer if the surgery didn't happen.”

The entirety of the experience steeled Dr. Scribner’s commitment to becoming a gynecologic oncologist. When he finished medical school, he and Liz stayed close to home as he completed his residency in obstetrics and gynecology in Hartford, Connecticut. But soon, they hit the road for a cross-country odyssey that eventually led them to Arizona.

The scribner family

‘I want to be part of your family’

From New England, the Scribners moved to Oklahoma City, where a fellowship in gynecologic oncology at the University of Oklahoma awaited. From there, it was on to a brief stop at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.

The next stay was an extended one in Roanoke, Virginia, where Dr. Scribner served as the Chief of the Gynecologic Oncology at Carilion Roanoke Memorial Hospital. The 10 years in Roanoke proved pivotal for Dr. Scribner and his family. There, he developed the skills required to build a gynecologic oncology program—skills he’s employing today as Chief of Gynecologic Oncology at City of Hope Phoenix.

While in Roanoke, the Scribner family grew in a way no one could have imagined. Dennis and Liz Scribner already had three children, sons Matthew and Ryan and daughter Catie. Then 13-year-old Juwon came into their lives.

A friend of Ryan’s from a traveling baseball team, Juwon came from a challenging home with an absent father and a mother who eventually turned her back on him.

“My wife went to drop him off at his house, and his mother was packing,” Dr. Scribner says. “She said she was leaving, didn't say where she was going and told Juwon, ‘I can't take you with me.’”

Minutes later, Juwon emerged from his bedroom with two laundry baskets filled with all his possessions and left with Liz to move in with the Scribner family.

“He asked us,” Dr. Scribner says. “’Please, could you adopt me? I want to be a part of your family. I don't want to go back to what I was. I would turn into something I don't want to be.’”

After two months and some family meetings, Dr. Scribner says, “everybody said we want him to be part of our family.”

Dennis Scribner

‘It was a strain on my marriage’

Roanoke is a scenic city with friendly people and breathtaking views of the Blue Ridge Mountains. But for the Scribners, life was busy … too busy. With four children at home and a bustling practice, Dr. Scribner felt as if he hit a wall, personally and professionally. He missed holidays and baseball games. And the family life he worked so hard to build often gave way to early-morning appointments and late nights at the hospital.

It was time to move on.

“I was working way too much,” he says. “And it was a strain on my marriage. So, we decided to restart and go somewhere where my wife wanted to be. We had spent some time with friends in Arizona and really love the warmer weather. We've been here for 10 years now and I don't want to leave Arizona. I think it's an awesome place to live. It's a mixture of so many different cultures and ethnicities and people from all different walks of life. And there are lots of fun things to do.”

A fitness freak, Dr. Scribner has completed 10 marathons and five Ironman triathlons. But his days as an endurance athlete has transitioned to more resistance training. He’s also earned a black belt in Aikido, a Japanese, self-defense martial art. His dojo is near his home in Scottsdale, Arizona, and not far from the City of Hope Outpatient Care Center where he sees patients.

While he plans to retire in Arizona, his professional energies are laser-focused on his patients and building a world-class Gynecologic Oncology Program at City of Hope Phoenix.

“I’m challenged by developing things to be the best they can be. So either I'm working for my family, or I'm working for my patients and working for a future with my wife that we can enjoy together. And I'm working to develop this program at City of Hope Phoenix. I came here with the idea of building a great gynecologic oncology program.

“What drives me to all that? Well, part of it is a sense of being able to give back to the community and giving back to patients who need the skill sets that I feel very fortunate to have developed.”

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