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Gratitude inspires stories of hope

Phil Dehner

Handling life with grit and gratitude

Doctors fix you, but nurses heal you.

Phil Dehner

Phil Dehner is the face of resilience. As a high school basketball player in the early 1960s, he was known as “Fighting Phil” because what he lacked in talent he made up for in pure determination.

“After my last game as a senior, the coach called me out into the hallway and told me I was the worst basketball player he had ever seen,” Phil says. “But he added that he never cut me from the team because I gave 100% all the time. He told me I would go far in life because of that.”

Phil has proven him right time and time again.


After high school, Phil joined the Navy so he could follow his lifelong fascination with flying. As an electronic aircrewman, Phil had several close calls while flying. On the first day of his first deployment in Kodiak, Alaska, a plane in his squadron crashed. Another time his plane’s engine exploded in flight. But Fighting Phil persevered.

“I joined the Navy to fly, so getting back up was important after those events,” Phil says. “In the Navy, you just have to handle it. That’s how we saw any challenge.”

Phil served 12 years in the Navy, married, and started a family. Returning to his hometown of Lincoln, Illinois, he became a successful financial advisor.

He also pursued his creative interests of acting, writing and singing, balanced by golf and ballroom dancing. Life was going full throttle. But Phil was forced to handle yet another challenge starting in 2014.

He began experiencing extreme shortness of breath, and his lung function steadily declined over the next four years. Tethered to an oxygen tank, he could no longer play golf, dance, or sing in his church choir. Soon Fighting Phil was in the fight of his life. But he kept working.

Initially, his doctor didn’t think Phil would be a candidate for a lung transplant. Phil went in for an appointment and his doctor commented: “You come in here cleaned up, neatly dressed, and ready to go to work. People in your condition just don’t do that. Maybe we should send you to St. Louis.”

Phil’s go-to Navy strategy of “handling it” became his new survival strategy. That drive and fierce determination earned him a place on the transplant list.

Considering Phil was tall with a rare blood type, he kept his hopes to find a compatible set of lungs in check. Thankfully, the lifesaving call came just three months after he was put on the lung transplant list.

At the time, his wife, Connie, was out of town, so Phil and his daughter immediately jumped in the car and drove two hours to Barnes-Jewish Hospital where he would receive his double lung transplant. “I was amazed it happened so fast,” Phil says. “My daughter was on the ceiling, but it didn’t rattle me.”


After his lung transplant in 2019, Phil faced a long recovery. Once he was discharged, he had to stay in a St. Louis apartment near the hospital for several weeks.

Grit is an essential characteristic when facing the transplant journey. Phil says his nurses got him through his recovery and continue to play an important role in his health. “The nurses are all so pleasant and caring. I don’t know how they do it. They have an ability to push you to do better. This is across the board for every nurse I met. They gave me strength. Doctors fix you, but nurses heal you.”

Through his journey, Phil formed a special bond with his dedicated transplant nurse, Stacie. “I’m in constant contact with her,” Phil explains. “I can call Stacie with any issues and will hear back from her immediately, even if it’s at night. She is like a lifeline.”

Phil’s gratitude sparked an idea to establish the Dehner Family Transplant Nursing Fund through The Foundation for Barnes-Jewish Hospital to support continuing education for transplant nurses to help them receive advanced certifications. Phil encouraged others to give by offering to add another donor’s name to the fund if they matched his giving.

With an additional transformational gift from a fellow transplant recipient, the fund was elevated to become the Dehner and Gopalaratnum Transplant Nursing Endowed Fund.

“It’s my way of saying thanks,” Phil says. “This is an important effort; otherwise, I wouldn’t have done it.”

In addition to supporting transplant nursing education, Phil and Connie give generously to advance lung transplant research through the Cizek Lung Transplant Research Fund at the Foundation.


Phil’s experience also inspired him to become an advocate for organ donation. Phil speaks about the topic at various organizations and events. “It’s about giving back,” he says. “To understand the value of organ donation, it’s important to see a person who has been through transplant.”

Today, Fighting Phil is once again able to play golf and sing in the choir. Recently, he even danced at his granddaughter’s wedding.

Rejection remains an ongoing risk, and COVID-19 poses additional challenges to his transplanted lungs. Yet ever unflappable and full of surprises, Phil continues to “handle” everything that comes his way.

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