Reprinted from Reader's Digest British Edition, originally published March, 2004
'Nicholas Would Have Been Proud'
By Robert Kiener
His greatest gift to the world came after his untimely death
Leaning across the lace-covered dining table, Andrea Mongiardo talks quietly but intently about his new job, chopping the air with delicate, porcelain-white hands to drive home a point. "I help my uncle," he says. "We manage a block of flats."
With a mop of black hair crowning a slight, five-foot-three-inch frame, Mongiardo talks of his career plans while the sound of honking horns drifts up from the street into his family's flat on the outskirts of Rome.
In his spare time, the 24-year-old adds, he walks in the nearby parks or swims in the local pool. "Best of all, I've finally got my driving licence."
Listening to the enthusiastic young man, his 75-year-old visitor, Reg Green, a former Fleet Street journalist, smiles wryly. "Bravo Andrea! And is there a girl in your life?"
A broad sash of crimson lights up Andrea's cheeks. "Well..." he begins. Green laughs.
It's a simple conversation, but remarkable all the same. Nine years ago, Andrea Mongiardo lay critically ill in a hospital in Rome. His skin was blue, his cheeks sunken. The malformed heart that had stunted his growth and often kept him bedridden was now killing him.
Doctors didn't expect him to survive more than a few weeks. Then, on October 1, 1994, a seven-year-old boy died in Messina, Sicily. His heart was rushed to Rome and transplanted into Andrea.
One day later, colour returned to the teenager's face. Within weeks he was walking and putting on weight.
Recently, he had an electrocardiogram. "I am always a bit apprehensive. But the doctor said, 'Relax Andrea, your heart is perfect.' "
Reg Green reaches over and rests a hand on the young man's shoulder. Then he hugs him. It is the heart of his son Nicholas that rescued Mongiardo from certain death nine years ago.
"Yes, Andrea," he says, blinking away tears, "it was a good, strong heart. And now it's your heart."
You may remember the story ["The Boy Who Lived For Ever"]. Nine years ago, it made headlines—and broke hearts—around the world. Highway robbers shot Nicholas Green, a freckle-faced, tousle-haired boy from northern California, as he and his family drove through southern Italy on holiday. He died two days later.
This story, the senseless murder of a defenceless child, could have ended there. But Reg and Maggie Green made a decision that would change their lives for ever, and the lives of thousands of othersround the world. They donated their son's organs.
"It just seemed right," says Reg. "Nicholas was gone. We wanted his death to help others." Within hours seven Italians, some near death, received the child's corneas, kidneys, liver, pancreatic islet cells and heart.
Word of the Greens' generosity spread almost instantly throughout Italy. While headlines trumpeted "La Nostra Vergogna" ("Our Shame"), one of Italy's best-known journalists Enzo Biagi wrote, "I wish to thank you, not only for the transplants but for a lesson—in generosity, in composure." Television host Maurizio Costanzo spoke for many when he told the Greens, "You have taught us a lesson in civility."
Reg realised they could help educate others about organ donation. And so they granted interviews, answered thousands of letters, made videos, gave speeches, wrote articles and a book, and co-operated in a film.
"We don't preach, we don't tell people what to do," he says. "We just tell our own story."
That story has moved people and moved them profoundly, around the world.
"Being in dialysis is like being in prison," says Anna Maria Di Ceglie, a petite 23-year-old dressmaker from Ruvo di Puglia, southern Italy. At 14, her kidneys failed and she faced exhausting three-hour sessions of dialysis every other day.
An organ donation was her only hope. In 1994, though, donation levels were especially low in the south of the country. Anna Maria wondered if she'd ever be free from the machine that controlled her life.
A week later she was on an air ambulance to Rome's Umberto I Hospital, where she received one of Nicholas Green's kidneys. "I was reborn," she says.
Anna Maria says she is "incredibly shy". Nevertheless, she has made speeches and given interviews to promote organ donations.
Two years later, one of Anna Maria's neighbours, a 16-year-old boy, died in a motorbike accident. Because he'd often spoken about Anna Maria's role in the Nicholas Green story, his mother felt he would have liked her to donate his organs. She did and several lives were saved.
"This is proof that the Nicholas
Effect lives on," says Vincenzo Di Ceglie, Anna Maria's father. "It is like a stone dropped in a pond."
The ripples show no signs of dying out. Soon after one woman watched the Italian version of the Greens' video The Nicholas Effect, her son was killed in a road accident. "She explained that the video inspired her to donate her boy's organs," Reg Green says.
"And she also began volunteering at a local hospital."
In 1999, 13-year-old Ilaria Perfetto died of a stroke while visiting the US. Her parents Tomasso and Anna Perfetto donated her organs. The child's heart, kidneys and liver went to four American recipients. "This is a difficult thing to do," her mother said. When asked what moved them to make their decision, the couple pointed to the example of Reg and Maggie Green.
Reg Green has made some 35 trips to Italy since 1994. He and Maggie, along with their daughter Eleanor and twins Martin and Laura, have opened schools, parks and streets named in honour of their son.
"The honours are all very nice," Reg Green says. "But the real reward is seeing how healthy the recipients of Nicholas's organs are today."
There's former ballet dancer Silvia Ciampi, crippled by diabetes before receiving Nicholas's pancreatic islet cells. And there's Tino Motta, an 11-year-old who was undergoing gruelling sessions of kidney dialysis. Today, the lively 20-year-old has only a scar to remind him of his former misery. Then there's Francesco Mondello, 52, whose job as a salesman was at risk because of a malformed cornea that made driving difficult.
Domenica Galleta, who lives in the tiny Sicilian town of San Filippo Superiore, was also losing sight in one eye until she received one of Nicholas's corneas. "Thanks to him," the 34-year-old says softly, "I can now see my children Laura and Antonio clearly."
Like other recipients, Domenica feels she is part of the Green family. A small, brightly painted toy horse is a treasured possession. "Maggie Green gave me this," she says proudly. "It was Nicholas's toy and I love having it."
In 1994 Maria Pia Pedalà was in a critical condition with Wilson's Disease, an often-fatal genetic disorder that attacked her liver. "The doctors told my brother I was very close to death," she says at her home, in the picturesque Sicilian hill village of San Fratello. "But two weeks after I received Nicholas Green's liver, I was walking on my own.
"Reg and Maggie have made a miracle and I am the proof." Then Pedalà corrects herself. "No, we are the proof. If it weren't for the Greens, neither I nor my two children would be here today."
She and her husband named their son after Nicholas. "We talk about Nicholas—we call him 'Big Nicholas'—all the time," says Pedalà. She pauses, puts her hand on her heart and says, "I feel he is alive, here, inside me."
Hardly a day goes by without someone sending a letter to the Greens' home in California, explaining how the Nicholas Effect has touched him or her. Many organ recipients write, "I just got an organ and don't know who the donor is, I want to thank you." Others who donated the organs of loved ones say they were moved by the Greens' decision.
But that's not the only kind of inspiration. "Since you lost your son my heart has been beating quicker," a young woman from Rome wrote to the Greens. "Today I think that people, common persons, can change the world. When you go and see Nicholas in the little graveyard place, please say this to him, 'Nicholas, they closed your eyes, but you opened mine.' "
"Donations go up every year," says Maggie Green, "but the waiting lists grow longer and longer." Meanwhile the Greens have made and sold more than 4,000 videos promoting organ
donations round the world. They plough all profits from their book, speeches, donations and film rights into the Nicholas Green Foundation. Every year, the foundation offers a grant to an Italian doctor to learn the latest organ transplantation techniques in the US.
Thanks to the Nicholas Effect, organ donations in Italy have nearly tripled. And recently the Italian Parliament passed a "law of presumed consent". Adults who don't specifically say they are against donating their organs are presumed to consent to them being donated.
"It never fails to amaze me that a small, seven-year-old boy has touched and changed so many lives," Reg Green says. "Nicholas would have been so very proud."
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