by Cindy Crosby | January 4, 2017 5:53 pm
Last Updated: January 4, 2017 at 6:03 pm
Ashley Thomas will, likely, never forget the phone call she received the day after Christmas, telling her that her “sister at heart,” Sarah Bonner, had been shot in an accident. Sarah’s story becomes an incredible intertwining of two deeply-rooted families in this community – where the tragic and heartbreaking loss for one became an incredible and unselfish gift to the other.
Sarah Bonner’s accident occurred at the Skip J Gun Range in Anderson, where she was visiting family and friends for the holidays. The self-proclaimed tomboy enjoyed the outdoors, including sports and fishing. After receiving a new gun for Christmas, Sarah and her best friend — along with family members which included her grandfather, her uncle and her mom — went to the range the day after Christmas. “Sarah was not a beginner with a gun,” said Ashley. “They had been to this range several times in the past. They were getting ready to leave the range and Sarah told everyone that she just wanted to shoot one more time. As soon as she shot, the others standing around her heard another shot in the distance — and then Sarah just fell to the ground.”
Thomas said family members and friends there with Sarah stated the gunshot seemed to come out of the distance and from nowhere. She added authorities confiscated the guns of individuals who were on the range at the time of the shooting and impounded the family’s car, following standard protocol.
“Afterwards, Mattie Smith, Sarah’s girlfriend, said she was waving people down trying to get them to stop,” said Thomas. “She (Smith) believes there were people that didn’t stop, who may have left before their gun was confiscated. It is still being investigated, as they now have the bullet that was removed from Sarah’s brain to compare with the guns.”
There remain many unanswered questions for Sarah’s family. “They really have no idea where the shot came from,” said Thomas. “They were all standing right next to her when it happened and when she fell to the ground, they all ran over to her to see what had happened.”
Although Sarah’s family was initially hopeful for her recovery, it was not long until it was determined she would not survive the tragic accident which lodged a bullet in her brain. Sustained by life-support, Sarah’s family began preparations to honor her recent decision to be an organ and tissue donor.
A family grieving for the loss of their loved one began thinking unselfishly about others who could benefit from Sarah’s gift. Immediately, family members thought of two individuals who may benefit: Jeff Benson, on the transplant list for a liver, and Jordan Eaddy, waiting for a kidney transplant. The family passed the information to LifePoint, the Organ and Tissue Donation Service for South Carolina, and the process would begin to see if a match was possible.
Three days later on December 29, Sarah’s family gathered together for 12 hours, as her organs and tissues were surgically removed for donation and transplantation. One of those organs, a liver, successfully matched with Benson.
In her final unselfish act, 24-year-old Bonner chose to help numerous people. Known as someone everyone loved, Bonner’s gift of life would allow others to laugh among friends and spend precious time with their loved ones. In her final act of generosity, the adventurous tomboy gifted others with a chance to live.
Jeff Benson came to the hospital and visited with Sarah Bonner’s family after he received the phone call. “Our family told him they would like for him to have her liver because she wasn’t going to survive,” said Thomas. “It was the most beautiful, yet tragic thing I’ve ever seen. He was so heartbroken, yet grateful at the same time. It was so touching and he and his family have been wonderful, saying they have a hard time being excited about Sarah’s gift of life, knowing and understanding our loss.”
Sisters at Heart
Although Sarah Bonner was Thomas’ cousin, the two considered themselves sisters, having been raised, for the most part, together. As they grew older, the two became inseparable. “Anytime we would go somewhere together, she would introduce me as her sister,” said Thomas. “We were each other’s ying and yang – so different, yet incredibly close. We always had each other and she was the most loving and giving person. Everyone who met her fell in love, and she would light-up a room.”
There is little doubt Thomas will miss her “sister at heart,” but she is finding solace in her gift of life to others. “I never really understood organ donation until this,” she said. “I didn’t realize you had to be alive for them to take your organs. That was one of the hardest parts – having to tell her goodbye while she was still alive and her heart still beating. It was tough to sit outside of the operating room for 12 hours and know my sister wasn’t going to come back out.”
Sarah’s Christmas gift to Ashley, two Willow Tree Angels entitled “Sisters at Heart” and “Miss You.”
Along the way, Thomas said the outpouring of love and support for her family has been incredible from the community. She said Sarah’s mother, Ginger Hansborough, is currently battling cancer for the third time and prayers for her are appreciated.
She also praised LifePoint, the nonprofit dedicated to advancing organ, eye and tissue donation in South Carolina for its support, education and help during the emotionally devastating time.
Celebration of Life
A celebration of Sarah’s life will be held on Thursday Jan. 5 from 4-5:30 p.m. with a service following at 6 p.m. at 12 Stone Church on the Snellville, Ga., Campus. In lieu of flowers, memorials may be made to Sarah’s Go Fund me page, www.gofundme.com/sbonner-memorial-fund. Also, there are plans in motion to fund a scholarship in her memory, as she was pursuing a radiology degree at Gwinnett Technical College.
A birthday gift unlike any other
On his December 29, 2016, Jeff Benson turned 52-years-old. For his birthday, he received the best possible gift – a second chance at life. This gift came through the tragic and heartbreaking loss of Sarah Bonner – and a hometown connection between two families.
Through Bonner’s fated decision to become an organ donor, along with the generosity and thoughtfulness of her family, Benson received his much-needed liver transplant. According to his family, not only was Bonner’s gift a match, it appeared to be the perfect “fit.”
In May 2014 following his first trip to a doctor in 13 years, Benson was diagnosed with Non-alcoholic Steato Hepatitis (NASH) and was soon placed on the transplant list. Although Jeff currently lives in Anderson, he grew up and lived in Walterboro for many years. He is the son of Buzz and Johnnie Benson of Edisto Beach and the late Etta Benson. He is engaged to his high school sweetheart, Laura (Elle) Hildebrand, and has four sons: Taylor, Riley and twins Madison and Sullivan.
As of late Tuesday, Benson had been moved to a regular room on the transplant floor in an Atlanta hospital and had managed a short walk with assistance. “The surgeon told us the liver was an incredible match and the surgery went perfectly because of that,” said his brother, Tim Benson. “Jeff is right where he needs to be as far as his recovery. He still has a long way to go, but the medical team is very pleased with his progress.”
“However, the only reason we are where we are is because of Sarah Bonner,” said Tim. “We get emotional every time we talk about it, because as grateful and ecstatic as we are that Jeff has been given this gift of a second chance, we remain so incredibly saddened for the loss of Sarah and our hearts go out to their entire family. Our family is so very grateful to all of them and pray they find peace and comfort during this very difficult time.”
“I can’t begin to express the appreciation from all of us for the continued prayers and generous donations,” said Tim. “We still have a long way to go in his recovery and raising funds to help cover the cost of the procedure, along with the required medications he’ll need in the future.”
To donate to Jeff Benson’s fund visit https://www.gofundme.com/jeff-bensons-transplant-expenses
How to Become an Organ Donor
To help solve the critical shortage of organs and tissues needed for transplants, register your legal consent on the South Carolina Organ and Tissue Donor Registry by registering online at Donate Life South Carolina, at SCDMVonline.com or at any South Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles (SCDMV) when obtaining, renewing or changing your driver’s license/ID information.
Organ Donation Facts (provided by LifePoint, Inc.)
• Every 10 minutes another person is added to the national transplant waiting list.
• One donor can potentially save eight lives through organ donation and improve the lives of 50 or more through tissue donation.
• Approximately 123,000 people in the U.S. are waiting for a life-saving transplant.
• Approximately 900 people are on the South Carolina transplant waiting list.
•An average of 22 people will die each day before receiving the life-saving transplant they need.
• The need for organ donors has never been greater.