FEATURE | Posted Sept. 4, 2014

A hobby with high purpose

UC Davis surgeon donates his time and airplane to help people with medical needs

Dr. Tom Stevenson
Dr. Tom Stevenson with his four-seat Piper Cherokee 235 airplane, burn survivor Anthony Bookhamer (center) and copilot Tracy van Iwarden (right), a flight instructor and aircraft mechanic. Photo courtesy of the Firefighters Burn Institute Kids Camp staff.

Tom Stevenson has been a pilot for two decades — about half as long as he’s been a surgeon. He learned to fly on a whim, then discovered he enjoyed the intense focus and responsibility it required.

“It was similar to surgery, but I wasn’t fixing anything,” said Stevenson, professor and chief of plastic and reconstructive surgery at UC Davis.

Eventually wanting to do more than “punch holes in the sky,” Stevenson added his name to the list of pilots who donate their time and airplanes through Angel Flight West to help people with medical needs and transportation limitations.

As part of the Santa Monica-based company’s flight team, Stevenson’s services are needed about seven times a year to fly people who need organ transplants, kidney dialysis, cancer treatment and other types of medical care in locations throughout California, Oregon and Nevada.

On August 9, he flew 12-year-old Anthony Bookhamer from a summer camp for pediatric burn survivors near Lake Tahoe to his grandmother, Lena Tryon, in Redding. Tryon has been Bookhamer’s guardian since a 2009 apartment fire severely injured him and took the life of his mother.

Because she no longer drives long distances, Tryon has asked for Angel Flight West's help in transporting Bookhamer to Sacramento for treatments at UC Davis Children’s Hospital and Shriners’ Hospitals for Children – Northern California, as well as to the camp.

“Anthony really looks forward to the camp because it gives him the chance to feel normal and be with other kids who are like him,” said Tryon. “Without the pilots’ help, he wouldn’t be able to go. And it’s extra special for him since he really loves to fly.”

On his trip home, Bookhamer got to see the Sierras from the sky — a much better vantage point than the camp provided.  

“It's a great way to appreciate the magnificence of Lake Tahoe and surrounding mountains,” said Stevenson.

Currently semi-retired, Stevenson will fully retire next year, giving him the opportunity for more Angel Flight West missions.

“Surgeons tend to be very driven,” said Stevenson. “I’ve joked with my colleagues who bought boats that eventually they’d be boat racing. I’m lucky that my hobby also helps me fulfill a higher purpose.”