Early each morning, when Reg Green hikes in the hills above La Cañada Flintridge, he stops at the bench that bears a small plaque that reads: “Nicholas Green, Organ Donor, 1987-1994.”
From there, Green can see a wide swath of Southern California: the desert, the mountains, the ocean — and he can sense something more, something he calls a “wonderful thrill of togetherness” as he begins another day in pursuit of an objective with life-or-death implications: keeping his son’s memory alive.
Green lost his son, Nicholas, a bright boy who showed an early appreciation for Greek myths, Roman history and plain spaghetti, when he was only 7. In an apparent botched robbery on the night of Sept. 29, 1994, Nicholas was shot while asleep in the backseat of the car his father was driving during a family vacation in southern Italy.
The incident, so tragic and terrifying, made international news, and the story continued to grow and gain importance after the Greens decided to donate their son’s organs at a time when that was a rare occurrence in that part of the world.
In his heart-wrenching, heartwarming book “The Nicholas Effect, a Boy’s Gift to the World,” Reg recounts the moment he and his wife, Maggie, were informed that their son would not awaken from a coma, that he was brain dead. “I knew,” he wrote, “I would never really be happy again.”
Even in their grief, the Greens considered donating Nicholas’ organs. Reg doesn’t remember exactly who said what, though he is inclined to credit his wife for suggesting it: “Now that he’s gone, shouldn’t we give his organs?”
“It was the least difficult major decision either of us ever had to make,” he wrote. “The boy we knew was not in that body anymore.”
They soon realized how profound a decision it was.
They learned that Nicholas’ organs — his heart, corneas, kidneys, liver and pancreas — would help cure seven children, some of whom had been near death.
“Even we were taken by surprise to know that there were seven recipients,” Green said recently over coffee in LCF. “And then when they were spelled out, it brought it home in a way that was more vivid. You had the fate of several families in your hands. You could bury those organs, or they could save other families from going through what you’re going through.”
And attention on Nicholas’ death didn’t seem to wane. Celebrities and religious leaders joined grandmothers and schoolchildren from around the world in reaching out to support the Greens, with notes that combined, as Green wrote, “dejection at the cause and jubilation at the results.”
The breadth and intensity of the reaction was such that Reg Green realized sharing his account of his son’s death could save many lives.
A former journalist who immigrated to the United States from England, Green had previously worked for the Guardian, the Times of London and the Daily Telegraph, and he had a good idea about how to propagate the story.
“I felt almost called to the task,” Green said. “I sort of felt, ‘This is my biggest story.’”
So he granted interviews, appeared on talk shows, gave speeches, met with dignitaries — whatever he, as well as Maggie and their daughter, Eleanor, could do to shine light on the situation, they did. Reg also wrote a pair of books, one of which was, in 1998, turned into a movie starring Jamie Lee Curtis, titled “Nicholas’ Gift.”
“The stakes were so high,” he said. “I didn’t give up after the first burst of publicity. We kept trying to find ways of telling the story that hadn’t been told to an audience, or to find audiences who hadn’t been told it before.
“It was a matter of putting a new face on it, like when I first went into journalism, I was on an evening paper when there were four editions, and you’d have to write a new story for every edition. Even if there was no real update, you made it a little different. So that’s what I did.”
When Nicholas was killed in 1994, Italy had one of the lowest organ donation rates in Europe, Reg said. But in the decade after, that rate reportedly has tripled: In 1993, 6.2 people per million donated an organ; in 2006, the figure was 20 per million. In 1999, Italy also moved to an opt-out system by which someone who is declared brain dead is presumed to be willing to donate his or her organs unless otherwise specified.
In 2014, the U.S. was reported to have 26 donors per million.
“Donor rates haven’t gone up enough because every year the waiting list gets longer,” Green said. “But that is not because donor rates have decreased but because the possibilities for organ donations have increased. More marginal cases can donate, older people, younger people can donate, more organs that are not in perfect condition can be used.
“So the number of transplants that happen have gone up, but they haven’t kept pace with the annual increase in the need for them.”
Lately, Green has been advocating for families of organ donors and donor recipients to meet, including in Italy, where it’s highly discouraged.
Certainly, there are times, Green said, when one side wants to move past the episode and not to prolong the pain. And, he said, there is a careful, proper way of doing it, beginning with anonymous letters before a meeting.
But the Greens want the world to know how grateful they are to have had the opportunity to meet everyone who received one of Nicholas’ organs, Reg said. The introduction happened, in their case, at a public event put on by a Sicilian charitable organization.
“I expected there to be a lot of mixed feelings going in there; they were only alive because Nicholas had been killed — but it was such a joyous occasion,” Green said. “We looked at these people who had been, literally, at death’s door just four months before. Now they were smiling, the younger ones were jumping around. The sense of belonging, as it were, was very powerful.
“One of them was dying the very night that all this happened, she was in the final coma and woke up to find she’d gotten a new liver. And she bounced back to health, married and had a baby — they named him Nicholas.
“And certainly, none of them was like Nicholas — how could they be? But the fact that they were so different had no effect or downside. If we had not known them, we would have had a sort of vision in our mind of what they would be, but it wouldn’t have been right. When you meet them, you realize that thing that we did, that didn’t go off into space. It did produce results, and there’s living proof of it.”
Green said he believes it’s equally beneficial to those who have been on the receiving end of an organ transplant.
“Many recipients feel guilty; they’re alive and somebody else died,” he said. “So to see the donor family not holding it against them, but also wanting them to know that the best thing a recipient can do is to have a happy life, that’s really uplifting to both sides.”
He said Maggie told Maria Pia Pedala, the young woman who’d received Nicholas’ liver, that she should know that “if that liver hadn’t gone to you, it would’ve gone to someone else.”
Hearing that proved to be a great relief for Pedala, Reg said.
Twenty-four years later, she’s still in touch with Nicholas’ family. Reg received an email from her after returning home recently from sharing his family’s story with a local reporter. She updated them about things happening with her, writing that although “her life has never been serene … she asks always to little Nicholas to help her to overcome all the difficulties. She feels he never leaves her.”
She isn’t alone. Nicholas’ sister Eleanor recently was married in Bodega Bay, where the family lived before it moved to LCF in 2004. She was wed, Reg said, at the children’s bell tower there, a structure that stands in memory of Nicholas. It’s 18 feet tall, with three tubular steel pyramids from which hang 140 bells: school bells, church bells, ships’ bells, mining bells, cowbells and, in the center, a bell from Marinelli foundry blessed by Pope John Paul II.
There also are more than 120 locations throughout Italy honoring Nicholas, including squares and streets, parks and gardens, schools and other monuments, including a lemon tree and an amphitheater.
And, of course, there’s the bench 1½ miles up the Mt. Lukens fire road from the Angeles Crest Fire Station. It was erected by LCF hiker Farhad Motia, who like so many others, was so moved by Nicholas’ story that he “wanted to do something,” Green said.
“Transplantation was a leap of the human spirit that transcended mere numbers,” Green wrote in “The Nicholas Effect.” “Death we know has a necessary purpose, replacing the old and infirm with fresh life. But in its clumsy way, death gathers up spring flowers, too. Transplantation meant we were no longer at the mercy of that arbitrariness. We had a say in the outcome.”