Given a 'New Life,' Jack Dykinga Gives Back to Phoenix Hospital

Jack Dykinga shakes the hand of Dr. Ross Bremner, chief of thoracic surgery at St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix, during a news conference Wednesday announcing Dykinga's gift of a large photo print (background) to the hospital. Flanking

What does a man say to the people who saved his life?

Jack Dykinga didn't know the answer. So Dykinga, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer and frequent Arizona Highways contributor, decided to show his gratitude in a way few can: with a spectacular photograph he hopes will inspire those facing the same long odds he did.

Wednesday morning, Dykinga joined doctors at Dignity Health St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix to present the hospital with a large print of one of his photos. It will be displayed in the hospital's cardiothoracic intensive care unit, where Dykinga received a double lung transplant last May. Multiple times during a press conference announcing the gift, Dykinga became emotional as he described the operation — without which, his doctors said, he would have been dead within days.

"I remember distinctly, at one point [before surgery], two nurses shaking me, because I had decided I was going to die ... and they yelled at me and said, "Don't leave me," he said. "And the next thing I knew, I woke up to this surgical mask with these blue eyes ... and I thought it was an angel."

In 2010, Dykinga, now 72, was diagnosed with ideopathic pulmonary fibrosis — a disease with no identifiable cause or cure. Over time, it causes irreversible scarring of lung tissue and robs patients of their ability to breathe. But Dykinga said he "didn't let it affect [his] life too much" until May of last year, when he was leading a rafting trip down the Colorado River.

"A sandstorm hit us, and it was like someone pushed an on-off switch," he said. "My lungs just shut down. Suddenly, I was fighting for my life."

Dykinga was rushed to Flagstaff and then back to Phoenix. After a stay at the Mayo Clinic, he was referred to the Norton Thoracic Institute at St. Joseph's. Dr. Rajat Walia, the hospital's medical director of lung transplantation, said Dykinga's case was complicated by his age and his significant coronary-artery disease.

"Not many transplant centers will transplant patients over 70 who also have coronary-artery disease," Walia said. Dykinga's transplant surgery, during which doctors also performed coronary-artery bypass grafting, was the first of that type at the institute, and since then, four others have been performed there, Walia said.

Dykinga spent six weeks in hospitals, plus several more months doing outpatient rehab, and lost 40 pounds. As part of his recovery, he had to walk laps around the institute's recovery unit. He would pick out a photo on the wall and use it to gauge how many laps he'd completed. That gave him the idea of donating a print of one of his photos "to help inspire other people's recovery," he said. He's since returned to shooting, and a new portfolio of his, from Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, appeared in the July 2015 issue of Arizona Highways.

The photo Dykinga donated to the hospital was made during two weeks he spent at Saguaro National Park near Tucson. "You sort of assume that [saguaro blossoms] all bloom at once, but they don't," he said, so he waited for the right opportunity to make the photo. "I was a voyeur to flowering in the desert," he said, adding that for him, the photo symbolizes "a chance at new life."

Since his surgery, Dykinga has become, in his estimation, a little "kinder and gentler." He's also become an outspoken advocate for St. Joseph's and the thoracic institute. He repeatedly thanked the hundreds of people who were involved in his care — a network that he called the hospital's "web of life." "I'm proud to know you all," he said, choking back tears. And he discussed his ongoing recovery and having had to fight against the urge to give up.

"I don't give up too well," he said.

Dykinga is a Chicago native. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography in 1971, while at the Chicago Sun-Times. His images have appeared in Arizona Highways, National Geographic and other magazines for decades, and his book projects with Arizona Highways include Images: Jack Dykinga's Grand Canyon. He lives in Tucson with his wife, Margaret. To learn more, visit

— Noah Austin

All photos by Photo Editor Jeff Kida.


There is not a photographer in this state that hasn't learned something from this man. I for one, hope to continue to do so.

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