Category Archives: Nicholas’ story

The final beat of Nicholas Green’s heart of gold

The boy who received my son’s heart died Tuesday, although he wasn’t really a boy any longer. He was 37 years old. But when my 7-year old son, Nicholas, was shot in an attempted carjacking on a family vacation in Italy, Andrea Mongiardo was just 15.

At the hospital in Sicily, my wife, Maggie, and I decided to donate Nicholas’ organs and corneas for transplant. They went to seven very sick Italians, four of them teenagers.

Perhaps the most agonizing feature of being on a transplant waiting list is that patients can do nothing at all to influence if and when a new organ becomes available. Their future depends entirely on whether a family they have never met is willing to put its own mourning aside to help total strangers.

When Maggie and I were told that Nicholas had no brain activity, it was she who said, in her usual thoughtful way, “Shouldn’t we donate his organs?” We had no sense of what the outcome would be, who could be saved, what they would be like. But we realized we could squeeze some good from what was otherwise just a meaningless act of violence.

What we couldn’t have guessed was how much good: News of our decision spread like wildfire and so galvanized Italy that in the next 10 years organ donation rates there tripled, an increase no other country came close to. As a result, thousands of people are alive who would have died.

Some of Nicholas’ recipients were very close to death. One was a diabetic who was almost blind, couldn’t walk without help and was dependent on others. After receiving Nicholas’ pancreas cells, she moved into an apartment of her own for the first time in her life.

A 19-year-old got Nicholas’ liver. The day he died, she was in a coma. She bounced back to health, married her childhood sweetheart a year later, and a year after that they had a baby boy, whom they named Nicholas. He is now a tall, handsome young man with no trace of the liver weakness that has dogged his family.

Andrea took longer to heal. He had been sick for so long that his strength was undermined and, whereas the other six were soon back in circulation, he only slowly came back to full health. But when he did, it was for real. He got a job, played soccer, lived more normally than he had ever been able to growing up.

And that is how things stood until we got an email on Tuesday. “His heart was still functioning,” Andrea’s longtime doctor told us, “but the lungs were fibrotic because of drug toxicity related to chemotherapy treatment received three years ago after diagnosis of lymphoma. The final cause of death was respiratory failure.”

It was deflating, like the loss of a young nephew you never dreamed would go before you did. But we don’t feel as if Nicholas died all over again, as some doctors fear will happen to donor families. And, of course, we still have no regrets about the decision we took in 1994.

When the Italian media first asked Maggie how she felt about our son’s heart being transplanted into another boy’s chest, she said: “I always hoped Nicholas would have a long life. Now I hope his heart has a long life.”

Sadly, Nicholas’ heart didn’t reach old age. It did, however, perform nobly for three decades. I’m not surprised: I always knew it was pure gold.

What we couldn’t have guessed was how much good: News of our decision spread like wildfire and so galvanized Italy that in the next 10 years organ donation rates there tripled, an increase no other country came close to. As a result, thousands of people are alive who would have died.

Some of Nicholas’ recipients were very close to death. One was a diabetic who was almost blind, couldn’t walk without help and was dependent on others. After receiving Nicholas’ pancreas cells, she moved into an apartment of her own for the first time in her life.

A 19-year-old got Nicholas’ liver. The day he died, she was in a coma. She bounced back to health, married her childhood sweetheart a year later, and a year after that they had a baby boy, whom they named Nicholas. He is now a tall, handsome young man with no trace of the liver weakness that has dogged his family.

Andrea took longer to heal. He had been sick for so long that his strength was undermined and, whereas the other six were soon back in circulation, he only slowly came back to full health. But when he did, it was for real. He got a job, played soccer, lived more normally than he had ever been able to growing up.

And that is how things stood until we got an email on Tuesday. “His heart was still functioning,” Andrea’s longtime doctor told us, “but the lungs were fibrotic because of drug toxicity related to chemotherapy treatment received three years ago after diagnosis of lymphoma. The final cause of death was respiratory failure.”

It was deflating, like the loss of a young nephew you never dreamed would go before you did. But we don’t feel as if Nicholas died all over again, as some doctors fear will happen to donor families. And, of course, we still have no regrets about the decision we took in 1994.

When the Italian media first asked Maggie how she felt about our son’s heart being transplanted into another boy’s chest, she said: “I always hoped Nicholas would have a long life. Now I hope his heart has a long life.”

Sadly, Nicholas’ heart didn’t reach old age. It did, however, perform nobly for three decades. I’m not surprised: I always knew it was pure gold.

Published on The Los Angeles Times.  
February 13, 2017

Leave a comment

Filed under In the news, Italia, Italy, Nicholas' story

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

Leave a comment

Filed under Events, In the news, Italia, Italy, Nicholas' story, Places named for Nicholas

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Book: 87 and Still Wandering About, Events, Nicholas' Cup, Nicholas' story, Stories