• Nicholas in Switzerland (on the slopes of the Matterhorn) a few days before he was killed (Photo - Reg Green).

      Nicholas in Switzerland (on the slopes of the Matterhorn) a few days before he was killed (Photo – Reg Green).

      Our story begins 23 years ago, when we were on a family vacation in Italy, traveling south on the main road from Naples. It was night but not late – 10 or 10:30 p.m. — when a car behind us, instead of overtaking, drew alongside and stayed there. I had time to glance over at the hood and saw what looked like dirt or rust marks. It seemed like an older car, and the thought flashed through my mind: “If there’s any trouble we can probably outdistance these people.”

      By Reg Green

      A few moments later through the night came the sound of loud angry savage voices yelling at us to pull over. I didn’t stop; it seemed too dangerous. Instead I accelerated. They accelerated too. I floored the car, they floored theirs. For a little longer the two cars raced side by side down the road. Then there was suddenly a tremendous explosion and the passengers’ window, where our seven-year old son, Nicholas, and his four year-old sister Eleanor were sleeping, was blown in. Maggie (my wife) immediately turned round to look at them, and both were sleeping peacefully. At the time it seemed a blessing. A few seconds later the driver’s window was blown in and how that bullet missed us both on the front seat we’ll never know.

      By now, however, we were doing what I’d hoped, pulling away. From being alongside I saw them in the side mirror, then the rear mirror, then they disappeared into the night. For another few miles we raced along at top speed, looking for somewhere with lights and people. As it happened there was an accident on the road, the police and an ambulance were already there. I stopped and as I opened the door the interior light came on, but Nicholas didn’t move. I looked closely and saw his tongue was sticking out and there was a trace of vomit on his chin.

      I have never known such bleakness. He had been shot in the head, was bundled into the ambulance and taken to the nearest big hospital. Two days later the doctors told us there was no brain activity. “Are you sure?” we asked. “We are sure,” they said, “but we will continue to do tests for the next 24 hours, and the next one will be ready in 40 minutes.”

      They considerately moved to a corner of the room, talking in hushed tones, and we sat there, holding hands, not saying much, until the results came in: still no brain activity. I remember thinking, “How am I going to get through the rest of my life without him?” Never to go out for a walk with him again, never to hear him say, “Goodnight, Daddy.”

      It was then that Maggie said quietly, “Now that he’s gone, shouldn’t we donate the organs?” And I said ‘Yes,’ and that’s all there was to it. It was clear that he didn’t need that body anymore, but dimly we were aware that somewhere out there, you could visualize them, there were people who did desperately need what that little body could give.

      To us he was a magical little creature – he looked for the good in everyone and found it. When you were with him, you wanted to do your very best. But we have never had a moment’s doubt that the decision to donate was the right one.

      Photo by permission of Oggi magazine, Italy.

      Photo by permission of Oggi magazine, Italy.

      Seven recipients

      There were seven recipients: a boy of 15, who had had three operations on his heart, all of which had failed, and as his doctor wrote to us later “was struggling to stay alive.” A mother who had never seen her baby’s face clearly. A keen sportsman who could no longer see his children play games. Two teenagers with kidneys that were barely functioning and whose lives had been reduced to being hooked up to machines that cleaned their blood four hours a day, three days a week. A diabetic whose entire nervous system was disintegrating, who was going blind and couldn’t walk without help. And a vivacious 19-year old girl who, on the night Nicholas died, was in a final coma caused by liver failure. One of her doctors told me later “we’d given up on her.” All those people! But I still remember the time I gave a reporter a list of his organs that were transplanted and adding “I wish they could have used his freckles too.”

      On that day these people were just statistics to us. But knowing now what they and their families had gone through and what would have happened to them, I know that if we had made a different decision, and shrugged off their problems as none our concern,  we could ever have looked back without a deep sense of shame. Most people I suspect have no idea, as we didn’t, of the mighty gift they have in their hands when faced with that situation. After all these years, five of the seven are still living productive lives.

      Brain death is a very special kind of death. If you die of all the usual ways your organs, deprived of blood, die too. It has to be someone whose brain is not longer working but on a ventilator in a hospital keeping the blood flowing, typically victims of road accidents or a stroke or violence as in our case. That is only about 1 percent of all deaths and is why every one of  them is so precious.

      No one knows why we were attacked but the evidence in court suggested the killers, seeing the Rome license plates on our rented car, mistook it for one delivering jewelry to stores in southern Italy – a thoughtless blunder that for me raises Nicholas’ death to a new level of irony.

      Two men were convicted: one for twenty years, so he is now free, the other for life, though because he cooperated with the police on other cases he is under house arrest rather than prison.

      Nicholas, 2nd grade (Photo - nicholasgreen.org).

      Nicholas, 2nd grade (Photo – nicholasgreen.org).

      The Nicholas Effect

      Our decision took Italy by storm, where organ donation rates were almost the lowest in western Europe. Within days they started to rise until in the next ten years they had tripled, a rate of growth no other country has come close to. They continue at that level and so thousands of people are alive who would have died. In Italy it is called ‘the Nicholas Effect.’

      Eleanor has grown into a beautiful woman, who will be married later this year, and we have twins, born 18 months after Nicholas was killed, who have filled up what otherwise would have been a very empty house.

      It was clear to us from the beginning that we’d been given a life’s work so that, although by the world’s standards this is a very small tragedy, we have tried to etch the story into the minds of everyone who would listen in the hope that this would not be just a passing event but a watershed. We’ve written dozens of articles, been interviewed by everybody from Oprah and the New York Times to tiny weekly papers in Australia, Buddhist radio in Taiwan and Venezuelan television and given talks to kindergartners and cardinals. I’ve written two books, “The Gift that Heals” and “The Nicholas Effect,” which was turned into a made-for-television movie starring Jamie Lee Curtis called “Nicholas’ Gift,” which has been seen by 100 million people worldwide and so on and on.

      A warm glow

      We still think of him every day and always with the sense of an irreparable loss. But there is still a warm glow when I reflect that our smiling, thoughtful, gentle little boy is now widely known as “the world’s most famous organ donor.”

      But transplantation goes beyond even saving lives. White men are walking around with black men’s hearts inside them – and vice versa. Hispanics are breathing through Asian lungs and vice-versa. Atheists are alive because Evangelicals gave to the world instead of turning inward in grief or bitterness – and vice versa.

      What a vivid lesson that, despite all the bickering, the differences between us are trivial compared with what we have in common.

      A journalist most of his life, Reg Green lives now in La Cañada Flintridge. He can be reached at his website, NicholasGreen.org.

      > For information on registering to become an organ and tissue donor, go to Donate Life America or call 800-355-7427.

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