Veteran’s final gift helps ailing Baiting Hollow man

06/17/2016 6:00 AM |

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Joseph Tandy’s life was based on service. The Mattituck native was a veteran of Operation: Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, where his efforts to repair emergency evacuation helicopters helped save dozens of lives.

As an Air Force reservist, he worked full-time in Westhampton to maintain the reserve’s helicopters.

Even in his final moments, after suddenly falling ill at home in Southold earlier this year and eventually going on life support, he was still helping others.

Just before his death in late February, at age 29, Mr. Tandy’s family chose to donate his organs. And while family members aren’t sure who received all those donations, they do know that one stayed close to home. One of Joseph’s kidneys helped save the life of Jim Thompsen of Baiting Hollow, who works at the Riverhead Home Depot with Joseph’s father, Jack.

Thanks to the Tandys’ decision, Mr. Thompsen — himself a family man — is healthy again.

“I’m so grateful,” he said in an interview. “He’s my hero here right now, but he doesn’t want to be called a hero.”

Jack Tandy said he was carrying out what he knew his son would have wanted.

“It’s got nothing to do with heroes,” he said. “Joe was always helping everybody. It was a very simple decision because of the way I knew my son … I did what any father would have done in the same position.”

Joseph Tandy was a North Fork native son through and through who graduated from Mattituck High School, his father said.

“He was one of those kids that always did the right thing,” he said. “I don’t know anybody that didn’t like Joe … He was a straight arrow from the start. Jeans and work boots — that’s Joe.”

After attending Dowling College, Suffolk County Community College and Community College of the Air Force, Mr. Tandy enlisted in the U.S. Air Force in 2008, earning the rank of technical sergeant as an aerospace propulsion specialist.

That same year, he walked into Legends restaurant dressed in his military uniform and asked his future wife, Tara Buczak, out on their first date.

As a member of the Air Force Reserves, he was deployed three times. His efforts to support casualty evacuation helicopters helped to save 85 lives, according to a previous Suffolk Times story. Ms. Buczak, also a member of the Air Force, joined him.

After the two returned from Afghanistan, Mr. Tandy and Ms. Buczak got engaged while listening to country music and watching the sun set over a Mattituck field.

Peconic Landing honored the couple as the third winners of its Veterans Day Wedding Giveback, throwing them a free wedding at Brecknock Hall in Greenport in November 2013.

“I just knew he was the one,” Ms. Buczak told the Suffolk Times just before their wedding. “I can’t imagine life without him.”

Before his sudden illness in February, he had been workingat Gabreski Air Force Base in Westhampton as an engine mechanic on HC-130 and HH-60 Pavehawk helicopters.

Top Photo Caption: Jim Thompsen (left) and Jack Tandy have been co-workers for years at The Home Depot in  Riverhead. Earlier this year, Mr. Tandy donated his dying son’s kidney to Mr. Thompsen as a way to honor what he believed his son — local veteran Joseph Tandy — would have wanted. (Credit: Paul Squire)

Tech Sgt. Joseph Tandy and his future wife, Tara Buczak, in an undated photo after returning from deployment. Mr. Tandy fell ill suddenly in February for unknown reasons and died. (Credit: Courtesy photo)

Tech Sgt. Joseph Tandy in an undated photo after returning from deployment. Mr. Tandy fell ill suddenly in February for unknown reasons and died. (Credit: Courtesy photo)

Mr. Tandy was healthy at the time, his father said. An autopsy still hasn’t revealed what caused his son’s death, though doctors believe a virus may have found its way into Joseph’s heart and weakened it.

“He was in Southold in bed and his heart basically just stopped,” his father said. Joseph was rushed to a nearby hospital, stabilized, then flown to Stony Brook University Hospital.

His family kept vigil by his side, hoping for signs of improvement. Despite “great care” by his medical team, Joseph never regained consciousness, Mr. Tandy said.

Mr. Tandy’s coworker, Mr. Thompsen, was also in the midst of a health crisis that had begun four years earlier. In 2012, Mr. Thompsen — a kitchen designer at Home Depot — nearly collapsed in pain at work and learned that he’d been infected with a strain of E. coli bacteria. While testing his kidneys for related damage, doctors found cancer.

Mr. Thompsen overcame his cancer diagnosis after an operation, but later developed an auto-immune disease called myasthenia gravis that caused his muscles to weaken. The illnesses, combined with diabetes, battered his kidneys until they were barely functioning.

By last December, Mr. Thompsen said, his kidneys were functioning at just 8 percent of normal capacity and he was forced onto dialysis.

Through it all, though, he kept working. He had a family to support: a wife, a 9-year-old daughter and two grown children on the autism spectrum.

As his kidneys failed, Mr. Thompsen prepared for a long wait on the list for a transplant. Doctors warned it would take at least two and a half years to find a suitable donor.

“I wanted to be around for my daughter,” he said. “She is so young.”

A few days after Joseph Tandy fell into a coma, Mr. Thompsen was called into the back room at work. Waiting for him was Mr. Tandy, who by then had learned that his son was brain-dead.

“It was a real sad scene back there,” Mr. Thompsen recalled. Mr. Tandy announced that the family would donate his son’s organs before Joseph was taken off life-support, and that he wanted Mr. Thompsen to be the recipient of his kidney.

The two men embraced.

“I gave him the biggest hug I could ever give anybody,” Mr. Thompsen recalled, acknowledging that he felt conflicted by the bittersweet moment.

Joseph Tandy wasn’t a registered organ donor, his father said, but family members decided he would have wanted to donate what he could to help others.

“Is it tough? Of course it’s tough. Your kid’s basically dying in front of your eyes, but it was a matter of what would he do,” Mr. Tandy said in an interview.

Mr. Thompsen said the two men weren’t particularly close at the time, but Mr. Tandy was aware of his illnesses and his need for a kidney.

“He gives everything for his family so it was a no-brainer,” Mr. Tandy said. “He was the first name that popped into my head.”

The rest of the family also approved of the idea, he said.

At 6 a.m., Mr. Thompsen went into the hospital for testing to see if he was compatible with Joseph’s kidney. Doctors warned that the odds were against it, since so many factors — like blood type and antigens — had to match.

But it was a perfect match, Mr. Tandy said. By 12:30 p.m., Mr. Thompsen was on the operating table receiving the transplant. His body’s reaction was almost immediate: He felt better than he had in years and has since recovered completely.

Jack Tandy said the family chose to donate more of Joseph’s organs — his liver, lungs and his other kidney. Soon after, on Feb. 23, the family said their final goodbyes and Joseph was taken off life support.

Since then, Mr. Tandy said he’s “compartmentalized” his loss. He tries to focus on work and the day-to-day needs of his family.

“You gotta do what you gotta do to get through things,” he added.

The family’s sacrifice is well known throughout the store where Mr. Tandy and Mr. Thompsen work. One co-worker called the two men “examples of what human beings should strive to be. They bring out the best in all of us.”

Mr. Thompsen still bears the signs of the dialysis he endured four hours at a time, three days a week. The veins on his left arm are enlarged and swollen from months of treatment. On his wrist, where doctors grafted an artery and a vein together for the treatment, blood buzzes just under the surface of his skin.

Mr. Thompsen’s own kidneys remain in his body since they weren’t damaged, but now a third — a final life-saving gift from a man who devoted his life to others — has joined them on his right side.

“This is a miracle for me,” Mr. Thompsen said.

But for Mr. Tandy, the transplant wasn’t a miracle. It was just what Joseph would have wanted.

“Something good came out of something really bad,” he said.

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