When Andrea Mongiardo, an Italian boy, 15 years old but stunted by chronic illness to 4ft. 4 in, was told only a new heart could save his life, he asked his doctor a boy’s question: after the transplant would he grow to 4ft. 9 in, the minimum height for a driver’s license?
“I can’t guarantee that,” the doctor replied, “but I am absolutely convinced that a transplant is the necessary condition to be able to do it.” That did it and the transplant went ahead, successfully.
The story has a special interest for me because the new heart had belonged to my seven-year-old son, Nicholas, who had just been shot in a botched robbery while we were on a family vacation in Italy.
The doctor is Dr. Francesco Parisi, formerly director of the Thoracic Transplant Unit at Bambino Gesù hospital in Rome, who has just written an absorbing book about his career, mostly by recalling some of his most interesting patients. One of the chapters is about Andrea and Nicholas. The book is called I Have Seen People Who Have Crossed the Andes to emphasize how the most difficult problems can be overcome.
Before the transplant Andrea was on the very edge of death. Born with a congenital heart disease that three operations had failed to cure, he was grossly under-nourished and was receiving infusions of blood products twice or three times a week. He also developed a serious stomach disease.
The transplant went well, however, and in time Andrea finished school, got a job, grew to 5ft 2in — and got his driver’s license. For many years he lived productively but then, weakened by all those years of bad health and the many treatments he endured, he died in February 2017, 23 years after his transplant. The official cause of death was respiratory failure, Dr. Parisi told me. “Nicholas’ heart went on beating to the end,” he added.
For my wife, Maggie, and me, close to the Mongiardo family as we became, this was of course a very sad ending but like them we were consoled that he had died on the threshold of middle age and not as a teenager.
So far the book is available only in Italian. It is titled “Ho Visto Persone Attraversare Le Ande”.