September 2018 – Speech and conference at the 2018 KODA (Korea Organ Donation Agency) Global Forum
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?
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.
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
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.”
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.
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.
Driving to another meeting in Sicily, without much time to spare, we suddenly came across twenty or so burly men who had set up a road block, strikers protesting the closing of the local plant of an oil company and the subsequent loss of jobs. A long line of drivers were arguing that they should be let through: I imagined kids waiting to be picked up at school, aged parents hanging around hospital waiting rooms, concerts, meals and homework missed. But the strikers were adamant. “Wait here till we open the road. This is important to us.” Nevertheless, my driver inched forward until we were alongside the strikers’ leader. “Where are you going? Stay in line with everyone else,” he was told brusquely. “I’ve got the father of Nicholas Green with me, the American child who was shot on the freeway in Calabria. He’s going to give a talk on organ donation at a school,” my driver replied. A skeptical face ducked down by the window, looked at me quizzically, then smiled broadly. “Let this one through,” he said to his pals and waved us on majestically.
On a recent visit to Sicily, where four of Nicholas’ recipients live, I was invited to speak to the kindergartners at the Rita Atria School in Palermo, who listened breathlessly to the tale of a boy, just a year or two older than themselves, who saved other children when no one else in the world could. Afterward I talked with the principal about the visit Maggie and I made to the same school 21 years ago and were received with the same rapt attention then too. It dawned on me that these were the little children of the little children we talked to on that first visit: a whole generation of families for whom Nicholas has been part of their lives.
This photo was taken at a presentation I made at Gaziantep university hospital, Turkey, to the medical staff and students at a local health care college. Looking at it, can anyone doubt the power of these presentations to change minds even in a country where cadaveric donations are minimal? The editor of the hospital’s webtv, a devout Muslim, wrote this: “This is my best day of my entire life. Today I put my name in the registry to donate all my organs. Now I can step in front of God freely and I will not blush for what I have done.”