By Reg Green —
Recently, in the restaurant of a Northern Italian hotel, someone in our group told the waiter I was the father of a seven-year-old California boy who was shot in a bungled robbery while we were on vacation in Italy in 1994. From a nearby table, a voice said “Ah, Nicholas.” Tables around the room took up the theme until it became a topic of general conversation.
It speaks volumes that a boy, and a foreigner at that, who was killed fourteen years ago can still bring a roomful of strangers together. It’s true the circumstances were unusual. My wife and I donated his organs and corneas to seven Italians, all of whom are still living. Even so, the intensity of the emotion after all this time always surprises me.
Last week, in the latest in a series of demonstrations of sympathy that have been held in cities from the Alps to Sicily, the little town of Giussano (pop 25,000), near Milan, was caught up in a flurry of events in Nicholas’ memory, organized by the local branch of AIDO, the dedicated volunteer group that promotes organ donation throughout Italy.
Giussano has no connection to our family: none of us ever visited it before Nicholas was killed. But a thousand people attended mass in the principal church at which the priest repeatedly linked organ donation to Christ’s teachings on helping others; 350 townspeople attended a conference on transplantation which ran from 9 on a Friday evening until almost midnight; students of all ages took part in contests to produce works of art and slogans supporting organ donation; there were posters in stores and banners in the streets; and the national media covered what normally would have been simply a local event.
Since Nicholas was killed, the Italian organ donation rate has tripled, a rate of growth not approached by any other country. From being next to the lowest in Western Europe, it is now one of the highest.
Nothing takes away the feeling of grief of losing Nicholas. But I am consoled by the recurring thought that Italians feel so protective of him that he is typically referred to, not by his full name, but simply as piccolo Nicholas, little Nicholas.
The events in Giussano culminated in the naming of a park in the most distinguished part of the city. Two marble plaques say only: The Garden of Nicholas Green 1987 – 1994, a restrained simplicity that both Maggie, my wife, and I appreciate.
It seems fitting that he is associated with a place where children, with all their hopes ahead of them, come to play and where adults go for quiet contemplation. Among others at the dedication ceremony was the first patient in Italy who was saved from blindness by a cornea transplant: he has now been able to see for 52 years.
At the ceremony, Nicholas was represented by two boys — one 7, the other 21 — the age when Nicholas was killed and the age he would be now. The town band played “The Star-Spangled Banner,” children waved American flags vigorously and William Gill, the American Consul in Milan, spoke of the way transplants bring people together.
A unique set of circumstances produced these results. But we all have it in our power to make a huge difference when death comes. Only a few can become organ donors: these are the people whose brains have stopped working – mainly because of head injuries from accidents, violence and strokes — and are on a ventilator in a hospital, so that the blood can be pumped through the system and the organs kept alive for a while.
Given that the decision to donate produces on average three or four organs, the families of these people have in their hands the power to save three or four other families, just like their own, from devastation. Given too that their numbers are so limited and the waiting list is so long each decision is crucial.
The great majority of people who die when the heart stops beating cannot be organ donors but they can donate tissue — corneas to ward off blindness, skin to cure excruciatingly painful burns, heart valves to prevent heart attacks and bone to avoid amputations and straighten spines. Tissue donors can relieve forty, fifty, sixty people of pain and anxiety.
Making those decisions in a hospital when a family member has just died can be very hard. The only thing most people want to do is to go home. That’s why you have to think about it ahead of time. But if you do think about it ahead of time I often wonder: why would anyone say no?