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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Blind for 48 Years, He Can See Again

On the day after Christmas 1944, in a corner of what became one of the most fiercely fought battles of World War II, a German mine blew up in Sergeant Harold Urick’s face. It left him totally blind and he stayed that way for 48 years.

            Harold’s unit, the 303rd Engineers, had just crossed the redoubtable German defensive barrier, the Siegfried Line, when they were ordered to dig up and defuse mines.

            He remembers every detail. “It was a bitterly cold day and the ground was frozen hard. There was a man on each side of me as we moved forward. I saw the mine – it was one of the small ones they used, just about a quarter pound —  and began digging it up very carefully with my bayonet. Suddenly I slipped on the icy ground.  There was an explosion and everything went dark. I put my hands on my face. ‘My God, I thought, what am I going to do now?’

            “Most of all in those early days, I worried about Jean. I was 21 and we’d been married just over a year. I thought of it over and over. Instead of the life we’d dreamed of when the war was over, I was going to be a burden to her all her life.”

            He was flown to a military hospital in Valley Forge and then back home to Cleveland. One eye was so badly damaged that it to be taken out and a prosthetic one put in its place. With the other he could see just a patch of light.

            He spent two years in a therapy school and then, with the dogged courage that has defined his life, started a physical therapy business of his own. “But people weren’t as affluent then and it didn’t take,” he says. He worked for several years at the Cleveland Clinic and then for another 15 at a snack bar managed by the Cleveland Sight Center.

            In the meantime, he and Jean had five children and seven grandchildren, none of whom he had ever seen. The family was central to his life. He went to almost every high school and college football game his son, Jeff, played in. “My wife would tell me what was going on. I just wanted to be there.”

            But his sight didn’t improve. “I went to three or four ophthalmologists over the years but all of them said they couldn’t do anything for me. Then one day in 1992 I was listening to a television program and I heard a doctor talking about transplanting corneas. I didn’t know what to think but I went back to the eye doctors. They weren’t encouraging until one of them said, ‘I know a doctor who does these. I think you should go to him.’

            “That’s how I met Dr. Philip Shands at Kaiser Permanente. ‘Yes,’ he told me, ‘I do these. Do you want to try?’ ‘You bet,’ I said. ‘What do I have to lose?’”

            Shands had then been in practice for only a year or two and was unsure himself about how much he could help. “The prosthetic eye we could do nothing about, of course. But when I examined the other one, I could see a small bit of the iris which, when we shone a light on it, constricted a little. Then, using ultrasound and other tests, it appeared as though the retina and other structures inside the eye were intact.”

             With this encouragement, Harold was put on the waiting list and told it would probably take three or four months before they had a cornea for him. “You might think I’d be on pins and needles all that time but I wasn’t. Most of the time I didn’t think about it, probably because he exuded so much confidence,” he recalls.

            Just before Thanksgiving, he was called in and, with great care, Shands removed the badly damaged cornea and other scarred tissue, implanted an artificial lens to focus the light and sewed in the donated cornea. In about an hour it was all over, Harold remembers. “‘Are you done?’ I asked him. ‘Yep,’ he said ‘but you’ll have to wait until tomorrow morning when we remove the bandages.’

            “The next day, when he began to take them off, I was lying face down on the bed and the first thing I saw were his shoes – the first things I’d seen in 48 years – then his pants. I looked up and saw he was wearing glasses. It was still a bit fuzzy, but they’d warned me it would take a while.

            “Then I looked down the bed and there was Jean, looking as pretty as she did when I first met her. Then I looked at Yvonne, my oldest daughter. It was the first time I’d ever seen her face. And she was beautiful, too.”

            He had some shocks too, such as how big airplanes had become and how fast cars went. In a few months his sight had improved so that he could pass the driver’s test and read just about anything he wanted. “Since then we’ve only had to fine-tune the prescriptions for his glasses, just like any normal aging person,” Shands says. “With them on he has 20/25 vision. Like all corneal recipients, he takes small amounts of immune-suppressants but has never had a period of rejection.”

            The other patients Shands treats have much less dramatic stories. “This was a once-in-a-career case,” he says. “But vision is the faculty people fear losing most and, with success rates of over 90 percent for those who are legally blind, cornea transplants reopen a world they thought they had lost forever.”

            All his life Harold has treasured the little things. Now it’s being able to walk through a restaurant to find a table or waving at friends across the street. He can still see with only one eye but goes to baseball games regularly and doesn’t need a running commentary. And at 86, he still bowls and plays golf.

            “But best of all is being able to see the whole family,” he says. “That was the hardest thing all those years. Now I have everything I want.”

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

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Strikebreakers

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.

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Donor is Like a Member of the Family

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.

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“Nicholas has grown and lives in me”

“Nicholas has grown and lives in me”

 The touching meeting between the father of Nicholas Green, the child killed along the Salerno-Reggio Calabria highway in 1994, and the woman who received the liver of the child. “At night, when I lift my eyes to the sky and see the brightest star, I know he is there. He is my guardian angel.”

Visto - Feb 19 2016 - part 1

(Visto magazine – February 19, 2016)

“The day Nicholas died, October 1st 1994, Maria Pia was only 19 years old and she was dying. Only a transplant could save her. Looking at her now, a vigorous mother of two lovely children and wife to a loving husband, tears come to my eyes thinking that, if my wife Maggie and I had made a different decision that day, nothing of this would be possible. If we hadn’t helped her and the others, I know we would never have forgiven ourselves”. Twentyone years have passed since Maria Pia Pedalà, in her final hepatic coma in a hospital bed, was saved at the very last moment by a liver transplant: the donor of the organ and of a new life was an American child, Nicholas Green, only seven years old, who was vacationing with his family in Italy and was declared brain dead after having been shot on September 29 1994 by two robbers along Salerno-Reggio Calabria Highway .

Since then, Maria Pia Pedalà has kept in touch from time to time with Nicholas’ parents whose deed of love gave a new life to her and to other three teenagers and an adult, and also sight to two more people thanks to the donation of the kidneys, liver, heart, corneas and pancreas cells. Since then, Nicholas’ father comes to Italy every year – where more than 100 places including streets, schools, parks, squares have been named for the little Green child. The most recent visit took place on February 3rd, on occasion of a conference on organ donation organized in Palermo at the Mediterranean Institute for Transplants and Special Treatments (ISMETT). And right here in Palermo, Green met Maria Pia Pedalà again. Over these years she married and had two children, Alessia, 15 years old, and Nicholas, 17, who got his name to honor her mother’s donor.

“Every meeting with the Greens is a unique emotion for me: I feel a shiver running down my back” Maria Pia explains. “His hug is something you cannot explain, like that of a father to a son: there is something indissoluble that ties me to him because Nicholas lives in me.

Q: Maria Pia, many years passed from the transplant that saved your life. What do you remember of those days?

A: I was 19 and during those last two months I had been suffering stomach ache and nausea – I entered and exited emergency rooms at hospitals not knowing the cause, until one day the pains were so strong that I was urgently hospitalized, suffering high temperature and jaundice. The day after I fell into a coma: a silent and sudden hepatitis was making me die. I was moved to Rome in an Air Force plane and I was in very serious condition. A few days later the doctors told my relatives that an organ was available. My state was so terrible that my relatives were reluctant, fearing to worsen my ordeal. But the doctors insisted that I had to undergo surgery: not only the organ worked perfectly, but after 21 years I am still here.”

Visto - Feb 19 2016 - part 2

Q: when did you discover that your donor was a child only seven years old?

R: I remained in the intensive care unit for a couple of weeks and then I was moved to the ward where they gave me a newspaper: it talked of an angel who had come from a far place and saved seven people. I burst into tears, I felt guilty thinking that a child had died and I was alive instead. It is a feeling that I had very often, until the day that together with the other six recipients I had the opportunity to meet those wonderful parents: Maggie made me understand that their choice had been a choice of love, that the donation had helped them to contain their sorrow. All over these years we have always kept in touch, meeting each other when possible, otherwise through emails.”

Q: You are a mum now: how did you explain your story to your children?

A: “Since October 2nd 1994 Nicholas is part of me, therefore there was no need to explain anything.

They heard me talking of Nicholas since they were born, also because I have a photo of him in my house, the last one before he was killed, that Reginald and Maggie gave me. Besides the photo I placed a toy soldier with which Nicholas played: during the first meeting with all the recipients, Reginald gave one of them to each recipient, and since then I have been looking after it with love. To me Nicholas is my angel: when at night I lift my eyes to the sky and see the brightest star, I think ‘there he is’. Nicholas has grown with me, and it is as if I have two ages: 40 years, my birth age and then 28, the age he will be today.”

Q: Have you ever been in California, where Nicholas is buried?

A: “Yes, and it was an incredible emotion. I went there with my family on the 10th anniversary since Nicholas had died, in 2004, and I took there a bell made in my hometown, San Fratello. Nicholas was buried in a catholic church in Bodega Bay, a small village 60 miles north of San Francisco where the Greens lived before moving to Los Angeles. Nicholas loved the sound of bells and that’s why his parents built a monument, The Children’s Bell Tower, made with 140 bells sent by families from many parts of the world, mostly from Italy; the central bell was blessed by Pope John Paul II.

Q: How is your life after the transplant?

A: I live a very regular life, I don’t smoke, don’t drink, I am careful about what I eat, and I have never had problems. For many years I have taken immunosuppressant medicines, as the procedure requires, but I have been pregnant two times and everything went well. On the other hand my transplant took place on October 2nd, the day dedicated to the guardian angels and I think I have some very special guardian angels: I lost my mother when I was 12, and I lost a brother when I was a child. I suffered loneliness, but a year after the transplant I married my husband Salvatore and I welcome every day of my life as a gift”.

Q: Also thanks to Nicholas and the decision of the Greens, organ donations in Italy started to grow. Until then our Country was at the very bottom in Europe: how is the situation in your region now?

A: “In Sicily there is the ISMETT, a center of excellence as for transplants, and a culture of donation is more and more widespread. As for me, everytime I can, I go to schools to tell my story to the children to let them know what organ donation is. And everytime, they always ask me about Nicholas: his memory is alive now as it was twenty years ago and I am more than certain that people will keep talking of this angel for a long time.”

Article published on Visto magazine (Italy), February 19, 2016.

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Speech at Gaziantep University in Turkey

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.”

Turkey - Gaziantep

March 2016

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Child Killed at Random Gives Sight to Others

Roxanna Green is the mother of Christina-Taylor Green, the 9-year-old girl who was killed when a gunman fired into the crowd at an outdoor meeting for Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson in 2011. She remembers, as in a nightmare, her daughter covered with a sheet and she, beside her, kissing her face and stroking her feet, willing her to live.

But, even as she and her husband, John, grappled with the enormity of their loss, they found the strength to donate her corneas, restoring the sight of two people, for whom there was no other cure. The child, born on one day of indiscriminate killing, September 11, 2001 – ‘9/11’ – and dying on another, gave the nation a reason to believe that, even in the most heart-wrenching circumstances, selflessness can overcome senselessness.

Christina Taylor Green with Roxanna

Shot at random: Christina-Taylor Green with her mother, Roxanna.

(Courtesy: the Green family)

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The Seven-Year Old Policeman

Six-year old Noah Michael Davis of Shawnee, Kansas. wanted to be a policeman so he could make sure “everyone was safe.” He didn’t make it. Instead, he drowned in the family swimming pool and was declared brain dead. Although he couldn’t help everyone, his family did donate his kidneys, giving two very sick people their lives back. On what would have been his seventh birthday, he was sworn in as an honorary police officer.

noah - the 7-year-old policeman

Noah Davis, Honorary Police Officer

(Courtesy: the Davis family)

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Cora’s last smile

Cora Hill of Orlando, Florida, 22 years old, dying from cystic fibrosis and, having received a new pair lungs that in time failed, in chronic pain and too weak for another transplant, came to a decision: calmly, but definitively, she told her family she wanted to be taken off life support and donate her kidneys.

Cora Hill - hospital

In this photo, courtesy of the Hill family, she is holding the baby of a friend. Two days later, her ventilator was switched off and the lives of two very sick people were transformed. Her mother, Dee (who is in the photo) says it was Cora’s last smile.

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