Smart enough to have built a lucrative seafood business and to have attended medical school, Phil Corey couldn’t wrap his brain around the simplest of concepts: his own mortality.

“I was in total denial,” the 68-year-old Coconut Grove resident says of the diseases that gnawed away at his liver for 42 years. “I was riding my bike 25 miles a day and had no feelings of being ill.”

Welcome to the confounding world of asymptomatic liver disease. You feel fit as a fiddle, but at the same time your doctor somberly warns of cirrhosis, liver cancer, and ultimately transplantation. Who to believe—your physician or your body?

Given that he had an entrepreneur’s stamina, along with the energy to pound around South Florida on his mountain bike, Corey gave the nod to his body. Meanwhile, the recommendations of his University of Miami medical team were met with skepticism and resistance.

Hard-driving, opinionated, and stubborn, Corey laughingly admits that his obstinance occasionally drove Eugene Schiff, M.D., chief of the Center for Liver Diseases at the Miller School of Medicine, “crazy.”

Ultimately Corey had a reality check, followed by liver transplantation surgery. He’s pledged $3.5 million to the Miller School of Medicine, with $1.5 million going to the Center for Liver Diseases, transplantation, and gastroenterology, along with a gift to athletics.

Primarily transmitted through blood-to-blood contact, the hepatitis C virus (HCV) popped up on medical radar screens in the 1960s, an era when intravenous drug use was high among Vietnam vets and in America’s inner cities.

“We saw almost an epidemic of it, starting around the time of the Vietnam War,” Schiff says.

Corey contracted HCV from a blood transfusion in 1965. HCV is almost exclusively a Baby Boomer malady in the United States, because effective screening to keep it out of the nation’s blood supply wasn’t in place until 1992.

That was of no help to Corey, who was a second-year medical student at West Virginia University when his lengthy encounter with liver disease began.

Not aware he had HCV, Corey decided after two years of medical school that medicine wasn’t his calling. Having already earned a master’s degree in physiological chemistry from Ohio State University, Corey left the classroom behind and embarked on a new career in sales. He accepted a position with a meat and seafood importing firm located in Coral Gables.

In the course of traveling extensively throughout Latin America, Corey encountered an Ecuadorian businessman looking to enter the nascent shrimp farming industry and became a partner in the venture. That decision laid the groundwork for the creation of the Seafood Exchange of Florida in 1979. Starting a business is invariably a grueling proposition, but Corey had no problem putting in the long hours required. Because from a physical standpoint, he felt great.

That’s a common phenomenon among liver disease patients. A diagnosis of cirrhosis (scarring) or cancer of the liver is usually the first indication something’s amiss. When scarring takes place, the liver responds by repairing the damaged tissue. But sometimes the regeneration process goes awry, leading to uncontrolled cell production.

In medical terms this is known as hepatocellular carcinoma, a malignancy that accounts for 80 to 90 percent of liver cancers, according to the National Institutes of Health. It’s also a cancer with an affinity for men 50 to 60 years old.

By 1982 Corey had become a patient of Schiff’s and had been diagnosed with non-A, non-B hepatitis. Still, the prospect of cirrhosis or cancer remained an abstraction for Corey, even after a CT scan found a questionable growth in his liver in 2005.

“I went to Gene Schiff with this, because Gene and I have been friends for so many years,” says Corey, who maintained the whole thing was much ado about nothing.

“Phil sincerely felt that he didn’t have cirrhosis and that he didn’t have cancer,” Schiff says. “Because of his lifestyle and the fact he was feeling good, he felt there was a misdiagnosis. We had to really twist his arm to get various things done.”

The first was a radio frequency ablation procedure that heated and killed the growth in Corey’s liver. Schiff was assisted by Andreas Tzakis, M.D., Ph.D., professor of surgery and director of the Miami Transplant Institute.

The growth was found to contain abnormal cells, but it wasn’t confirmed to be cancer. Schiff casually mentioned that Corey might want to contemplate the possibility of undergoing a liver transplant. The liver specialist had no way of knowing he’d just thrown down a verbal gauntlet, Corey laughs.

“I said, ‘Gene, I’m not going to have a transplant,’” Corey remembers. “‘No way in hell am I going to have a transplant! I’m too healthy, and I’m not going to worry about it.’”

But Corey found it impossible not to worry when another growth materialized a short time later in a different part of his liver.

This time it was unquestionably a “bad boy,” in Corey’s parlance. A hepatocellular carcinoma. The cancer was ablated, but Corey still wasn’t ready to come to grips with his condition. A visit to Tzakis changed all that.

“He literally shamed me into getting a transplant,” Corey laughs. “He simply said, ‘You gotta get off the damned fence and realize that these things are gonna keep coming!’”

Corey reluctantly agreed to have a procedure done in April. “It was hard for me . . . I was one of the few liver transplant patients that didn’t come in here crawling on his hands and knees,” he says.

A successful five-hour operation left Corey with a month-and-a-half ban on bicycling.

“We’re grateful for his generosity, and we’re pleased that thus far he’s had a good outcome,” Schiff says. “The purpose of the Center for Liver Diseases, and certainly for me personally, is to keep liver diseases from getting to a point where transplants are needed.”

It’s an objective that Corey fully supports, to the point of becoming more involved with the Center for Liver Diseases and the Miami Transplant Institute. He views his liver treatments and surgery as “God’s way of steering me in a different direction in my life,” he says.

“I’m a very religious person. I believe that this was his way of nudging me toward what I’m doing now and what I’m going to continue to do.”