Phyllis Greenquist Pursues KU’s Bachelor of Health Sciences to Make an Impact on Lung Transplant Industry

Phyllis Greenquist displaying poster Small World Initiative

Phyllis Greenquist is learning how scientists may one day be able to engineer replacement organs for people like her who are in need of a lung transplant.

Pursuing KU’s JCERT-supported online Bachelor of Health Sciences degree at the Edwards Campus (KUEC) in Overland Park more than 35 years after her high school graduation, Kansas City native Phyllis Greenquist exemplifies resilience.

As a teenage single mother, Greenquist headed straight to the workforce in 1984. Starting as a receptionist in an auto body shop, she worked her way up the ranks in the automotive industry, where she spent a successful 28-year career. During this time, she was one of the first two female auto adjusters in Southern California, was an auto body repair representative in Colorado and managed a seven-state region after moving back to Kansas City, eventually overseeing automotive manufacturing data for body shops.

While her career progressed, her health deteriorated. Born with Alpha-I – a congenital lung disease she didn’t know she had until she was 45 – her lungs were giving out after decades of exposure to environmental toxins. After contracting pneumonia and collapsing, her doctors said her days in the automotive industry needed to end.

“It’s all I knew; it’s where I spent my entire career,” Greenquist said. “Thankfully, I met the incredible people with Vocational Rehabilitation in Johnson County, who had faith in me to change my path. With an educational grant in hand, I was inspired to go back to school as an adult.” 

She started taking courses at Johnson County Community College (JCCC) to learn how to design environmentally safe vehicles. Shortly after, Greenquist suffered a bout with emphysema. A switch went off, Greenquist said.

“I realized, I don’t need a car, I need lungs!” 

Greenquist set out on a mission to learn how to engineer donor organs on a 3D printer. She took chemistry, biology and genetics courses and earned her associate degree from JCCC. Vickie Massey with Vocational Rehabilitation encouraged her to further her education right down the street at KUEC, where Greenquist began pursuing a degree in biotechnology.

Every time she worked with a pathogen in a lab, however, she got sick. It was time to revisit how she was going to safely earn her degree. KUEC’s online Bachelor of Health Sciences degree was the answer.

“This program has literally been a lifesaver for me, especially during COVID,” Greenquist said. “This program has been phenomenal. So many people have invested in me and see something in me that makes them think I could help others. It’s given me purpose, and it’s kept me alive.”

To launch the online Bachelor of Health Sciences degree in 2020, the KU School of Professional Studies worked with departments at the University of Kansas Medical Center to ensure the program included a diverse and comprehensive health sciences curriculum that would lead to careers in the health and medical professions.

With her expected graduation in spring 2023, Greenquist added the JCERT-supported public and population health minor to her pursuits. In one of her courses, she had the opportunity to interview a KU Medical Center researcher about access to cancer therapies for rural patients, which she said gave her an enlightened, real-world connection and view for her career goals. 

“The pandemic has shown a light on how much work we have left to do when it comes to public and population health policy,” said Greenquist, who recently recovered from the coronavirus herself. 

On the fast-track list for a lung transplant, her new direction is advocacy for Alpha-1 patients. 

Greenquist said she strives for a day when scientists can engineer replacement organs. She continues to lobby for more lung transplant facilities, including in Kansas City, as traveling long distances is not always possible for those in need, especially when the organ stays viable for a finite time. 

Now a grandmother with a passion for the outdoors, Greenfield knows exactly what she wants to do after receiving her long-awaited transplant.

“As soon as I get my lungs,” she said, “I’m heading straight to the Red Rocks to hike without my oxygen tank!”

Mark Jakubauskas, director for research and innovation at KUEC, taught Greenquist in his environmental health course. He said she is a stellar student who exemplifies the goals of the Bachelor of Health Sciences degree and his hopes for students pursuing it.  

“Phyllis has an amazing story and embodies the nontraditional, passionate student spirit by working on her degree to create new opportunities in her life and make a real impact on the world,” Jakubauskas said. “The Bachelor of Health Sciences degree combines the latest research in health sciences with healthcare policy, management and communication. I look forward to seeing what Phyllis continues to accomplish and will be cheering her on along the way.”