For Millville boy, light at end of tunnel is Trout
Thomas Walkup, 8, excited to meet hometown hero at Angel Stadium after surgery in August
ANAHEIM -- Susan Banks has a dream for how this will all play out. Thomas Walkup, her legally blind 8-year-old son, will fly to California, undergo successful surgery by the only doctor who can cure him, then go to Angel Stadium to see his hero.
"How cool would it be if Thomas' first vision, the first thing he's actually able to go to and see, is a baseball game that has Mike Trout in it?" Susan said, relaying a scenario that has played out in her head countless times these last couple months. "That's what our goal is -- that this will be the first event in his life that he'll actually be able to see."
Thomas' vision has been blurry and fuzzy after he was born with a severe condition called congenital nystagmus, often called "dancing eyes." Thomas has a hard time keeping his eyes fixed, and the only way he can see is if he tilts his head near his chest and tries to look out of the corner of his eye.
His mom is in awe of his resolve and his optimism. But she's heartbroken by the fact that he can't play baseball anymore, now that he's past the age when kids hit off a tee. And she dreads the possibility of Thomas never being able to drive, or keep a steady job, or lead a normal life.
"Everybody has told me to accept him the way he is," Susan said. "I just wasn't willing to accept that."
After many nights digging through the Internet, Susan finally stumbled upon the one physician who can keep Thomas' eyes from shaking and improve his vision -- Dr. Robert Lingua, who operates out of Gavin Herbert Eye Institute in Irvine, Calif., and is selective with his patients.
Susan sent him all of Thomas' information and was given the thumbs up a couple months ago.
"We were just beyond excitement," Susan said. "After the excitement wore down, then we had to figure out how we were going to get to California."
Her insurance covered the surgery, but not the flights and hotel accommodations for a family of four -- including Thomas' sister and step-father -- to stay in Orange County for nearly a month.
They needed to raise $10,000.
Their hometown of Millville, N.J. -- the same small town where Trout grew up -- helped them raise $16,000 by the start of this week.
Her friend started a GoFundMe page and Susan hosted a local bowling event this past Saturday, where everyone sported yellow T-shirts that read "We Are" in the front and "Helping Thomas See His Future" in the back. The South Jersey Times and Philadelphia Inquirer have covered their story, the family has been on local talk shows and the UCI Medical Center has even sent a film crew to shoot a documentary. Donations keep rolling in. All the excess will go towards Thomas' college fund. He wants to be a scientist.
"We're just a regular family that lives in a small town," Susan said. "We never would've expected that it would've gotten this big."
It got a little bigger around early May. Trout's mom, Debbie, who still lives in Millville, N.J., read a story about Thomas' situation and e-mailed a link to Angels vice president of communications Tim Mead. Soon after that, Susan received a formal letter addressed from the Angels and the Trouts, inviting her son to attend an Angels game, stand on the field for batting practice and meet his favorite player.
The Angels hope to send him to Disneyland, too.
"If I was in their situation, and if I had an athlete I looked up to, I would like to meet him, just to stay hi," Trout said. "Just to put a smile on his face -- something little like that can help get the negative out of his head and keep him positive."
Thomas has been through a lot already. Last year, he was diagnosed with Langerhans cell histiocytosis, a rare disease that required emergency surgery on his skull. The following day, he was rushed back to the hospital to be treated for supraventricular tachycardia, a condition that causes abnormal and dangerous spikes in blood pressure.
Thomas' mom, who lost her brother in Afghanistan 12 years ago, became a local bus driver so she could take Thomas to and from school and be there for him in between.
The family will fly to Southern California on Aug. 9 and stay until Aug. 28, with the three-hour procedure slated for Aug. 13. Thomas can't travel until two weeks after the surgery and his eyes will be sore for the first five days. Susan plans to take him to Angel Stadium on Aug. 20 or 21, in one of his first days outside.
Thomas can't stop talking about it.
"He's been driving me crazy," Susan said, laughing. "I think he kind of forgot all about his surgery at this point. I mean, everything has been Mike Trout.
"If you ask him who Mike Trout is, he'll tell you he's the most famous baseball player ever. And I think he just connects with him, knowing that Mike came from here in Millville, and here's Thomas from Millville, he's going all the way out there to change his future. That's why it's such a big thing -- not just because it's baseball, but because Mike came from here, and look at him."