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New Jersey Father Donates Cornea to Legally Blind Son

Jupiterimages/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- 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.

But 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.

His unexpected death, however, left his family with an unexpected gift.

"I never would have even dreamed of it," said his son, Tom, 32, who is legally blind.

In 1987, Tom, then 7, was celebrating another Thanksgiving in Pennsville, N.J., with his family when he 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."

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?

Tom's aunt, Kathy Hughes, 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.

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

"It all had to be precise," said Hughes, who has worked as a transplant coordinator at the Gift of Life Donor Program, an organ procurement organization.  "We had to stay on top of this to make sure it happened."

She reached out to Christiana Hospital in Newark, Del., where Tom's father had died, to find an eye surgeon.  And to keep it all "under one roof," Hughes coordinated with Christiana Hospital, the Gift of Life Program and Wills Eye Institute in Philadelphia

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

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," she said.  "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.

"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."

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio

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