New Jersey Father Donates Cornea to Legally Blind Son

PHOTO: Tom Bestwick was killed in a motorcycle accident in July 2012. A few days after his death, his organs and tissue was donated to those who needed them most.
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Tom Bestwick enjoyed the open road, especially the feeling he got when riding his Harley Davidson through the back roads of southern New Jersey with his son, Tom.

"It was the combination of the thrill of the ride, the freedom of not being confined in a metal box, and I'll be damned if it ain't fun," said his son.

On July 17, 2012, Tom Bestwick would ride for for the last time. His 1997 silver CMC motorcycle collided with a Buick La Saber in Quinton, N.J. He was rushed to Christiana Hospital in Delaware, but doctors could not save his life.

But his unexpected death left his family with an unexpected gift.

"I never would have even dreamed of it," said his son.

Tom Bestwick had served as a lance corporal in the U.S. Marine Corps, enlisting in 1974. He worked as a hydraulics mechanic servicing planes. When his service was over, he became what his son described as a "jack of all trades." He worked as an electrician, licensed pipe fitter, and at one point, ran a farm with son Tom. "We were inseparable," said Tom, now 32.

Tom said his father was the type of person who'd give anyone anything. He donated his time to many causes. For the past 15 years, he volunteered as an Eagle Master with the Boy Scouts, and with his mother, delivered meals for Meals on Wheels.

"He always tried to give back. There was a time when I literally saw him give someone the shirt off his back," said his son.

Even in death, that statement would prove true.

In the Blink of an Eye

It was 1987, Tom was 7 years old, and the Bestwicks were celebrating another Thanksgiving in Pennsville, N.J. Tom and his younger brother, Paul, had found a Bungee cord and wanted to see just how far the giant elastic string would stretch.

"It flung back and caught me in my left eye. I went blind instantly," said Tom. "Everything happened so fast. It didn't even hurt."

For the next month, Tom wore an eye patch. Five years later, he underwent an inner ocular lens transplant -- the first in a handful of surgeries to improve his damaged sight.

"Doctors at that time questioned if the surgery would even work or not," said Tom. "I got some sight back amazingly enough. But I was legally blind."

Putting Off Surgery

For years, Tom needed surgery to correct the sight in his damaged left eye. His ophthalmologist suggested the idea of laser eye surgery to help minimize the original scarring on his cornea. But Tom hesitated to try such new technology.

"I never put a second thought into a transplant of any sort," he said. "I just figured my vision is what it is."

But his father was a registered organ donor, and Tom and his family began to wonder, what if ...

The Possible Gift of Sight

Tom's aunt asked if Tom could use his father's cornea to help correct the vision in his left eye. A cornea transplant had never been considered. The family wondered whether it was even possible.

"Oh God, I still get goose bumps when I talk about it," said Kathy Hughes.

For the past six years, Hughes has worked as a transplant coordinator at the Gift of Life Donor Program, an organ procurement organization, and she went to work on the Bestwicks' behalf. But she kept running into dead ends.

Corneas must be transplanted within 12 to 14 days, and the clock was clicking .

"It all had to be precise," said Hughes. "We had to stay on top of this to make sure it happened."

Hughes first had to account for organ recovery, or in this case, tissue recovery, and then had to make sure the transplant could be carried out.

She contacted Lions Eye Bank of Delaware Valley, where a staff evaluated and expedited the removal of Tom Sr.'s corneas from Christiana Hospital in Newark, Del., where he'd died.

Hughes then worked to find an eye surgeon.

To keep it all "under one roof," Hughes coordinated with Christiana Hospital, the Gift of Life Program, Wills Eye Institute in Philadelphia and Lions Eye Bank in Delaware Valley.

Dr. Parveen Nagra, a corneal surgeon at Wills Eye Institute, agreed to perform the surgery after hearing Tom's story.

Just when everything seemed to be lining up, though, Tom's employer brought up a worrisome clause in Tom's insurance contract.

"There was a clause that states it does not cover pre-existing medical conditions," said Hughes.

Hughes made more phone calls. Within days, Wills Eye was willing to donate the corneal surgery and Lions Eye Bank would donate the corneas 100 percent.

"We do anything within our power to make the gift a possibility, particular when financial barriers stand in the way," said Jim Quirk, Pres. and COO of Lions Eye Bank. "At the end of the day, you have an organization to run, but some things transcend finances."

"I asked Dr. Nagra if she'd donate her time," said Hughes. "She and the hospital said, 'Absolutely.'"

Nagra she'd never encountered a situation quite like Tom's.

"It was a very emotional time for him having learned very unexpectedly of his father's premature death, and to make these decisions," said Nagra. "He felt very strongly about getting his father's cornea."

Nagra performed the surgery four days after Tom's father died. When Tom went back for a follow-up checkup, it was the day of his father's funeral.

The Legacy

"A loss of a loved one, and certainly a donation doesn't take that away, but it does give people hope that their loved one somehow lives on in the recipient," said Nathan Howard, CEO and president of the Gift of Life Donor Program. "It really is a living legacy."

Tom Bestwick's legacy also lives on through others who received his other organs, including his kidneys, skin, bone and other tissues.

"This is what he wanted. We got a really nice letter from the recipient of one of his kidneys," said his son. "His liver and lungs went to science and I got his cornea."

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