Emotional Upsurge for Italian Earthquake Victims has one Precedent: Death of a Small American Boy

The recent devastating earthquake in Italy caused an enormous increase in blood donations. Searching for a parallel, the highly-respected health writer, Margherita De Bac, could only find one: an organ donation story. Here is an excerpt from her article in Italy’s largest newspaper, Corriere della Sera.

Earthquake, the Amatrice Effect, thousands of blood donors.

“The emotion after the earthquake brought a huge number of volunteers to the blood transfusion centers. Now the people in charge of such donations hope that the solidarity does not end. It has been called ‘The Amatrice Effect’. Thousands of blood units were donated by citizens to help the victims of the shock that crumbled towns between Lazio, Abruzzo, Umbria and Marche regions. There has never been such an immediate and spontaneous response [from blood donors.] The same thing happened in 1994, when the death of Nicholas Green, the American child killed along the Salerno-Reggio Calabria highway when he was traveling with his parents, moved the consciences of the Italian people about the problem of transplants…….. Sometimes emotion is worth one thousand campaigns of awareness.”

[After Nicholas’ organs were donated, donations in Italy increased every year for the next 10 years, until they were three times as high as before he was killed.]

Link to the article: http://www.corriere.it/salute/16_agosto_29/terremoto-effetto-amatrice-d5eae0fc-6e06-11e6-8bf4-ee6b05dcd2d0.shtml

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When the Lights Are Turned Off

      In “The Gift that Heals” (www.authorhouse.com) Mindy Zoll, then a transplant coordinator with TransLife, the organ procurement organization in central Florida, described the operating room — at one time crowded and noisy with perhaps 15 or 20 people in it — as the removal of a donor’s organs comes to an end. “The first surgeon will take the heart and he’s gone, already on the roof and into the helicopter or in an ambulance, with the lights and sirens going, while the others are still working. One by one each team leaves and, in the end, it’s just two or three people cleaning up, and everything is quiet again,” she said.

“I generally help put the patient in a shroud before they are taken to the morgue and I always thank them for what they gave. I think of their family at home, in a house that suddenly seems empty, and I want them to feel that I cared for their loved one, just like I would my own.”  

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Fifteen-Year Old, Weighing 60 lb., Now Has My Son’s Heart

A few months ago I received a letter from a transplant surgeon who helped put my dead son’s heart into the body of a boy who would have died without it . He is Dr. Stefano Marianeschi, now Director of the Pediatric Surgery Unit at Niguarda Ca’ Granda hospital in Milan, one of Italy’s foremost transplant hospitals. “We have never met in person but our lives crossed in 1994,” he wrote.

At the time, Dr. Marianeschi was a young cardiac surgery assistant at Rome’s famous children’s hospital, the Bambino Gesu (Baby Jesus) where one of his patients was “a bright boy” named Andrea, 15 years old, who suffered from a complex congenital disease of the heart for which he had already had three major operations, none of which had cured him. This time the diagnosis was terminal complications from the third operation, namely protein-losing enteropathy.

“When I met him he was struggling to survive, he was grossly undernourished, weighing only 27 kilos (60 lb.)and twice a week he had to be admitted to our hospital for albumin and calcium infusions. The only hope for him to get back to a normal life was a heart transplant.”

In those days organ donations in Italy were just about the lowest in Western Europe. “People were resistant to the idea of consenting to donate the organs of their loved ones. So every heart transplant brought challenges and great emotions at the same time,” Dr. Marianeschi wrote.

“I clearly remember the night of October 2. Andrea was in our ward and suddenly we were called because there was finally a heart for him. Dr Antonio Amodeo flew to Sicily to harvest the heart. I went to the hospital and gathered with all the surgeons assisting Professor Carlo Marcelletti to perform the transplant.

 “Initially I did not know who the donor was. I was just happy for my patient to receive the transplant. But as I realized that it was Nicholas’ tragic loss that was the light at the end of a very dark tunnel it was with mixed emotions that we proceeded, trying to make the best of a bad situation. The operation went well and Andrea gradually recovered. Now he is 35 and we meet sometimes on the social media on the Internet. He is still bright like when  he was a child.”

Just another medical miracle.

I remember that night too and the numbness that came with having made a decision that meant we had given up any last hope of holding on to Nicholas. But it never entered my mind, nor Maggie’s either, that this was anything other than the overwhelmingly right thing to do. And that is as true now as it was then.

P.S. I should add that the letter was mailed from Cambodia, where Dr. Marianeschi and other doctors from Niguarda hospital work several weeks of the year to make a dent in the huge backlog of medical problems in a country where a whole generation of physicians was blighted by civil war and repressive regimes and where even now medical resources are woefully inadequate.

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Bike Race

On organ donation day in Italy (May 29), a cycling team led by Francesco Avanzini, a 62 year-old man who had a kidney transplant 29 years ago, cycled the very tough 50 kilometers, along the glorious coast from Sestri Levante to Genoa. It was like many other activities for organ donation that day but for me it had not one, not two, but three special features. First, I have become friends with Francesco and have seen a degree of moral courage in him that matches the physical courage he needed to stay alive. Second, the race went close to the very first place I stayed in Italy 65 (!) years ago when I had saved enough money to go abroad for the first time. And third could I, as a young man, have ever imagined on that first visit that a race would one day pass this way that would end at a bridge named for my own son?

genoa bridge sign

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“I’m Going to Get a New Heart from the Hospital,” Six-Year Old Tells His Family

A week after his sixth birthday Aiden Hansen was on a walk with his father, Jesse, mother, Shifra,  and little sister, Lilah, near his home in Santa Rosa, California, when a call came in telling them his new heart had arrived at Stanford Hospital and they had to leave immediately. They had been waiting for a year and a half. 

His great grandfather, Arthur Hansen, wrote to Maggie and me about it. With great care and for no pay, Arthur looks after the peaceful country graveyard in nearby Bodega where our seven-year old Nicholas is buried. This gentle, warm-hearted man has always seemed to share our grief and it was easy to see how much this moment meant to him.

                “Aiden asked his dad if he could phone Mimi, his grandmother, our daughter,” Arthur wrote. “Jesse dialed the number and gave Aiden the phone. When she answered the words tumbled out of him. ‘Mimi, my heart came in and I’m going down to get it.’ He was so excited even knowing the challenges of surgery, having had three open-heart operations already.”

                That night, as he waited to go into the operating room, he asked Mimi how late it was. “It’s 1:30,” she told him. “That’s the latest I’ve ever stayed up,” he said. His mother was nursing Lilah and couldn’t be there. “Is there anything you want to tell mommy?” Jesse asked as he took a video. “I love you,” he replied.

Aiden - Family photo

Three days later Aiden was dead, the operation being too much for his weakened little body to withstand.

Death has a necessary purpose, we know, replacing the old and infirm with the young and fresh. But death, in its clumsy way, all too often gathers up spring flowers also. And sometimes those flowers are the most beautiful of all.

“I have been in tears writing this letter to you,” Arthur wrote. And so was I.

Aiden’s parents have paid a loving tribute to him at www.aidenhansen.com.

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A Boy Joins His Heroes

A garden with one of the loveliest views in Greece has been dedicated to Nicholas by the Hellenic College of Nephrology. It stands dramatically on the edge of a soaring hill overlooking the city and bay of Volos, the port from which the Argonauts set sail to find the golden fleece.

Greece - Nicholas Green Park

It is a perfect setting for a little boy who thrilled to the classical myths. (When I read him the story of the blinded Polyphemus running his hands in a rage through the woolly coating of his sheep trying to find Ulysses and his men who were clinging underneath, I thought he would burst.)
The garden joins the 112 schools, squares, streets, parks – and one bridge – named for him in Italy. The college president, Dr. Georgios Efstratiadis and his board see the garden as a way to remind all who go there of the tens of thousands of kidney patients whose lives were saved by a transplant.

            I am taking this opportunity to thank everyone else involved, including the friendly management and staff of the Xenia Palace hotel in Portaria, on whose grounds the garden stands, and to Dr. Athanasios Diamandopoulos, a former president of the college and Professor Natale De Santo, professor emeritus at Second University of Naples, who together spearheaded this project.

The garden adds another timeless element to Nicholas’ story, who died in a hospital overlooking the Straits of Messina, where thousands of years ago Ulysses, again in the kind of fearful danger that puts young boys on the edge of their seats, navigated his ship through the narrow channel between Scylla, the monstrous rock and Charybdis, the monstrous whirlpool.

Here is a link to a beautiful video made by Giusy De Rosa, a schoolteacher in Caserta, Italy, of cities with “Nicholas’ places. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UKtm2CQP8tg


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After a Heart Transplant, She Climbs Some of the World’s Toughest Mountains

Here is a photo of Kelly Perkins, who came from England to Southern California and has climbed some of the world’s most famous mountains with her husband, Craig, including the Matterhorn, Fuji and the awesome (what other word fits?) El Capitan in Yosemite.

craig and kelly

All that, after having had a heart transplant in 1995, making it impossible for anyone who hears about these exhausting climbs to doubt that having a transplant can restore a terminally-ill patient to the peak of fitness. Good going, K.

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Children, Once Too Ill to Walk Across a Room, Take to the Ski Slopes

High in the Swiss Alps, in the little town of Anzere, 34 children from around the world, aged 6 to 17, were preparing to ski down a 45 degree slope in a revered competition that at one time none of them could have dreamed of being in.

It was a perfect day for the climax of the World Winter Transplant Games: the Nicholas Cup.

The weather was calm and clear, the sun dazzling on the pure white snow. The course was treacherous, however, hard ice in places, difficult to dig in the edges of the skis to cut the angles round the gates and more difficult than for the usual run of skiers because, a week earlier, none of these children had ever been on skis. Until then, some – such as those from Tunisia, Hong Kong and Israel – had never seen snow. “I falled over a few times at first,” one small face said proudly. “But I’m alright now.”

Nicholas Cup, Anzere, March 2012

Day 1: First hesitant steps.

But the real challenge was of an order of magnitude greater than all that. All of  them had once been so ill that their only cure was an organ transplant: a new heart or liver, kidneys or lungs to replace the ones that were dying inside them.

Some had been desperately sick at birth – yellow or blue or a lurid shade of green. One had kidneys the size of peas. A third had to be fed through a tube and, says his mother, “for the first two years he never laughed.” Some could not walk across a room without stopping for breath. Others had lived normal lives, until felled by a virus that at first seemed no more severe than a headache. The first that one father knew of a problem was a scream in the night as one of his daughters heard her younger sister collapse on the floor and then kept her alive for forty minutes as the ambulance crew talked him through the CPR procedure.

For many of these children any form of exercise, let alone a competition mixing risk with athletic agility, was physically impossible. On top of that the years of  dependence could have eaten away fatally at their self-confidence. Yet, on the day of the race, one by one the little figures appeared at the starting gate, high on the mountainside. Some came down with what the commentator charitably called “a racing snowplow” style and one or two held on to the instructors. But most tackled the course with assurance and a few with insouciance.

March 8-9 Nicholas Cup 2012

Day 7: “What’s the problem?”

The triumph, however, was collective: these are not sickly lives prolonged by an experimental medical procedure but children who, if anything, perform better than other kids because they exercise and eat more healthily and, having learned at close quarters how precious life is, are determined to make the most of it.

The competition was started by a liver recipient, Liz Schick, a British-born mother of two living in Switzerland who, like so many recipients, wanted to say ‘thank you’ to the world and has done it in an unforgettable way. As one 15-year old girl, who had a transplant when she was 2, and has been shunted between homes to wherever the appropriate medical treatment could be obtained, said afterward to her mother, “This was the best thing I ever did.”

From Reg Green’s book “87 And Still Wandering About.” 2016. www.authorhouse.com.

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Organ Donation Leaps Over the World’s Biggest Barrier

I have just spent a week in the company of a man whose experiences throw a fresh light on the Israeli-Palestine conflict. He is Ismael Khatib, the 46-year-old father of Ahmed, a 10- year old boy who was shot six years ago, in the tense West bank city of Jenin, by an Israeli soldier who, on a day of rioting, saw him among a group of other boys holding what looked like an automatic rifle. It turned out to be a plastic model.

Ahmed was taken to the Rambam hospital in Haifi where he was declared brain dead. The doctors then did what their counterparts in hospitals all over the world now do routinely. They asked Ismael and his wife, Abla, if they would donate their son’s organs to whoever was at the top of the waiting list, which is compiled regardless of race or religion. The Khatibs consulted their religious leaders — who signaled their agreement – and their donation leapt what is probably the most bitterly-divisive barrier in the world, Ahmed’s organs going to six Israelis, all of them small children, four of them Jews. I met Ismael when we were together on a tour of Eastern Canada which included talks with Muslim, Jewish and Christian communities. It was arranged by George Marcello of Toronto, who has had two liver transplants and has walked across Canada carrying a torch – subsequently blessed by Pope John Paul II — to tell everyone who will listen that tens of thousands of people around the world die every year because of the shortage of donated organs. George, lion-hearted in determination and achievement, is one of those remarkable recipients who cannot rest until they have paid back everything they can think of to a world that has shown them such unexpected selflessness.

In the hate-filled atmosphere of the Palestinian question, where every action is weighed by the committed on both sides to see what propaganda can be wrested from it, the implications of saying ‘yes’ to organ donation are profoundly ambivalent. Some Palestinians are embittered about Ahmed’s organs going to Jews. Many others are using the donation quite cynically as a way of claiming a moral ascendancy over their enemies and advancing their cause in its wake. Given the intensity of the conflict, everyone involved can be presumed to have mixed emotions.

But what is perfectly clear is that to take the organs of a dead person, put them in the bodies of several others who are dying and out of that produce a crop of healthy lives is a triumph for humanity.

The Torch of Life

Yael Gladstone, seen here at Niagara Falls, is the sister of Yoni Jesner, a Jewish pre-medical student from Glasgow who was killed when a Palestinian suicide bomber blew up the bus he was traveling on when visiting Tel Aviv. Next to her is Khaled Khatib from the Palestinian town of Jenin, whose ten-year old brother, Ahmed, was shot by an Israeli soldier who thought the plastic replica of an assault gun he was holding was real. Both families donated their son’s organs. One of Yoni’s kidneys went to a seven-year old  Palestinian girl. Six of Ahmed’s organs went to young Israeli children, four of them Jews. Yael and Khaled are holding the Torch of Life that George Marcello, a Canadian who has had two liver transplants, has single-handedly made an international symbol of the power of organ donation to bridge even the world’s most bitter divisions. He has walked across Canada carrying it, showing it in hundreds of towns and villages, and took it to Rome, where Pope John Paul II blessed it.


We can hope too that transplantation, with its ability to scrupulously avoid discrimination, will also be a stepping stone in bringing the whole world a little closer together. Since meeting Ismael I often think of Yoni Jesner, a 19-year-old Scottish Jew, who was killed by a suicide bomber in Tel Aviv in 2002 and one of whose kidneys went to a seven-year-old Palestinian girl.

The closing event on our tour added one more dimension, a talk to the  governing council of an aboriginal community, the kind of society that from time immemorial has believed that tampering with the body is taboo. Now, it turns out, almost all of them have signed donor cards. For them also a medical miracle has modified the beliefs of all those accumulated generations and life has trumped death.

(From “87 And Still Wandering About” )

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Lung Recipient Runs Up A Skyscraper

“I was sick all my life,” says Steve Ferkau, manager of trading floor operations at the Chicago Stock Exchange. “As a child I was always coughing and getting serious infections. I had bronchitis, allergies and bouts of pneumonia. I was very thin, and as far back as I can remember I was always the smallest in the class. At 16, when I got my driver’s license, I weighed 75 pounds.”

            On his 13th birthday, his problems were diagnosed as cystic fibrosis, the genetic disease that produces thick sticky mucus that clogs the lungs. Thirty thousand Americans suffer from it.

            The treatment was a form of torture for everyone involved.  Every day someone had to pound on his chest so he could cough up the gooey mess to clear his lungs. “Mom had no rhythm, so at 7 o’clock, nearly every morning for six years, Dad cupped his hands and thumped my chest until he left for work. At 10 o’clock at night he did another half hour.”

In time he deteriorated so much that he was put on the transplant waiting list. For three years, he was on oxygen 24 hours a day. Just to get up off the sofa, where he spent a lot of time, and walk to the bathroom left him crouched over the sink struggling to catch his breath.

Then one day, out of the blue, when his lungs were so clogged no one knew how he could pull air into them, a pair of lungs were offered to him. “As with most successful lung transplants he was pink immediately,” his nurse recalls. Three weeks after the operation, he walked a mile in 20 minutes, something that before the transplant could have taken hours. In ten weeks he was back at work.

            The one thing that clouds the result for him was that the lungs came from

a beautiful, intelligent and athletic 17-year old from Iowa, Kari Westberg, who woke up one day with a headache and died of a brain hemorrhage later that day.

Steve struggles to find some ground where he can tell Kari’s parents how happy he is without reminding them of what they’ve lost. But what he wrote to them must come as near to that hallowed ground as any poet could find: “You’ve taught me there is pure goodness in the world.”

Kari’s mother, Lisa, responded in her own unaffected way in talking about Steve and Kari’s heart recipient. “We never want them to feel they owe us,” she says. “Their happiness is gratification enough.”

This was not enough for him, however. Three years after the transplant in an event staged by the American Lung Association of Metropolitan Chicago, and dedicated to Kari, he raced up 94 floors of the Hancock Center – 1,632 steps — in 33 minutes.

And he has done the same thing in her honor every year since then, a total of 14 times.

From “The Gift that Heals,” by Reg Green, published by AuthorHouse, 2007, (www.authorhouse.com).

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