enough to have built a lucrative seafood business
and to have attended medical school, Phil Corey
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
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
Hard-driving, opinionated, and stubborn,
Corey laughingly admits that his obstinance occasionally
drove Eugene Schiff, M.D., chief of the Center for
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
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
shrimp farming industry
and became a partner in the venture. That decision laid the
groundwork for the creation of the Seafood Exchange of Florida
Starting a business
a grueling proposition, but Corey had no problem putting
in the long hours required. Because from a physical standpoint,
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
In medical terms this is known as hepatocellular
carcinoma, a malignancy that accounts for 80 to 90 percent
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
But Corey found it impossible not to worry
when another growth materialized a short time later in
part of his
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
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
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.”