Nicholas Green

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The Nicholas Effect
 
The Nicholas Effect

   

Chapter Twelve: Other People's Stories

We had some striking early evidence of the impact Nicholas' death was having. Maria Shriver, who interviewed us a few days later, told us that all her life people have wanted to let her know where they were when they heard President Kennedy, her uncle, was shot. For those of us who were alive at the time, that moment remains perfectly clear, a measure of its unique impact. Now she was saying to us, "I was exercising with my husband when I heard Nicholas had been shot." Since then many others have said something like that: I heard it on the car radio when I was stuck in traffic, when I was in a hospital waiting room, just as I was leaving the World Bank meeting in Madrid. Someone I talked to three years later said, "I was driving back from a weekend in the country when the news came on. I looked over at my seven-year-old son and a shiver ran through me."

Many other people we had never met came to us with stories that plumbed the depths. A mother in Texas spoke of her five-year-old son, who had died not long before. "I felt so helpless at not being able to relieve his pain. I could only talk to him and hold his hand and tell him he was going to a more beautiful place. He apologized to us the week before he died for having been ill and causing hardship to our family."

One day this letter arrived from another stranger. "When I was 12 weeks pregnant I started to hemorrhage. Waiting in the emergency room, a news flash came on the television. Little Nicholas Green had been taken away- My husband hugged me and said, `Possibly his spirit will save our baby.' At that point we decided to name our baby Nikolas." But Nikolas died too, and his body was given to research. "It doesn't lessen the pain, but maybe he will help save other children," the letter closed. Some months later, we met the handsome young couple the letter came from. They were still childless and subsequently lost two more babies, but looking at them casually you would never have suspected the anguish they had gone through. Another two years passed, then one day a letter arrived with an exultant photograph showing a baby boy who had been carried for them by another woman. However you look at it, it deserves to be called a miracle, doesn't it?

In the last four years, we have had dozens of encounters like these that have reshaped our lives. The names alone read like a harmonious Tower of Babel: Nakaoka from Japan and Bautista from the Philippines, India's Malekar and Pakistan's Bashir, Kalinski and Jones, Helfgott and Iqbal, Ho, Melendez, and O'Reilly. We have shared experiences with the Los Angeles Lakers and the Compassionate Friends, the Australian Red Cross and the New Hampshire Department of Motor Vehicles, Saints Peter and Paul Church in San Francisco and Woodlands Community Temple in White Plains, athletic clubs and the National Italian-American Foundation, carabinieri, gendarmes, and traffic cops, politicians of all parties, and so on and on. Think of all those diverse cultural roots without any significant difference in how these people felt.

We often meet them at filling stations. They usually finish pumping gas, pay, and then just before leaving come over. "Are you the parents of that little boy? I thought I recognized you. I just wanted you to know-" Then they get into their car and drive away quickly. They wanted to say it, but they didn't want to be brassy. No longer are they someone keeping you waiting in line: they're the real thing, people like you and me.

One perfect summer's evening, I went to the cemetery to water Nicholas' grave, deep purple filling the quiet valley. No one is ever there at that time of day. Surprisingly, at the entrance a car was parked and in it were Amedeo Pignatelli, then the director of the San Francisco Italian Cultural Institute, his seventy-three-year-old mother on a visit from Rome, his lovely Thai wife, and his barefoot four-year-old son. This little cross-section of humanity, each with a different vision of Nicholas' story, had driven the sixty-five miles simply to visit him and were now going to drive straight back.

Most of the people we met were strangers, but not all. Jack Bogle, chairman of the Vanguard Group, perhaps the most widely respected man in the mutual fund industry, wore a pacemaker when I first met him in the 1970s and played tennis with the punishing energy he brought to everything. "That's going to kill him," I thought. But no, he went on increasing in influence, fathering index mutual funds and conducting his crusade against anything he thought smacked of laxity. To him, the fiduciary responsibility in handling other people's money is an almost sacred trust.

More than twenty years passed and at last even his battling heart was ready to give up. He was saved by one of those five thousand families in this country who, with no idea what the results will be, make their gift to the world. I wrote to him to say I couldn't think of a better result of transplantation than that it could save a man of his ethical and intellectual stature. His reply was typical: generous praise for donors, a sense of hope for the world, and a copy of his latest speech castigating mutual fund fees that he felt were too high.

Our new life has also uncovered the pains and victories of lives that the surface never hinted at. When the Italian consul general in San Francisco and his wife met us at the airport on our first homecoming, with that enveloping concern we'd already learned to expect from their countrymen, we had no idea they had lost a child of their own.

A young television network producer, who spent most of a day at our home attending to the painstaking details of a long interview, it later turned out, had come straight from the funeral of her best friend. One young boy, sitting silently on his own at a meeting, was pointed out to me: his identical twin had been killed the year before riding a bicycle.

Without our story becoming known, we would have seen none of this. Now I too can see much more clearly that this isn't simply another driver pumping gas, but someone who underneath has all the fluctuating cares and hopes I have. It's been useful to be reminded that the annoying habits I see in others are the ones I readily excuse in myself. I've learned almost nothing about death in these years. It's still the same absolute mystery-the why, what, whereto-but I do think I've learned some things about life and one of them is the depth of suffering the ordinary person can go through while still doing all those mundane things that keep body and soul-and families-together.

In 1983, Katie Coolican, six years old and apparently perfectly healthy, was in her school playground when she suffered a catastrophic brain hemorrhage. When the little girl died, her mother, Maggie, a nurse, and her father, Don, had no hesitation about donating her organs. Neither thought it was enough, however, and between them they have put in untold hours since then trying to ease the way for both donors and recipients. Even when we first became involved more than ten years later, many people in the transplant organizations were leery of donor families-they never knew what we were going to say-but in the early 1980s, it was much more difficult and Maggie Coolican had to struggle for years to make her voice heard. By sheer force of personality, she helped found the National Donor Family Council of the National Kidney Foundation, a support group for donor families which has grown from people sitting around the Coolicans' kitchen table to four thousand members.

It proved to be a unique voice. Traveling in the family car one day, and doing what she generally did on long journeys, sewing, a thought came to mind: "Why not ask donor families to send in squares to make into a quilt?" It succeeded beyond all expectations and is now one of the most moving props used in transplant meetings-hundreds of squares, each of them a separate love story and each sewn into place by Maggie herself.

There are pieces of T-shirts, football jerseys, a little boy's pajamas, a wedding dress, a christening gown. Some of the clothing is worn from long use, showing previous repairs from a minor accident, perhaps, that would have been forgotten long ago, but is now an enshrined part of family history. A few manage a touch of humor. Some squares are elaborately stitched, others rough hewn. A radiant little face peeps out of one square with a smile that says, "What a wonderful oyster the world is," but is accompanied by a chilling footnote: 1982-93. The quilt travels around the country breathing life into the medical statistics, and several statewide organ procurement groups now have their own. A children's version has been started so they too can remember parents or siblings in a way that hopefully helps them come to terms with death.

Maggie Coolican is one of a cavalcade of people in the transplant field who, often quite alone, have saved the lives of people they will never know. They don't fit any pattern I can see except, perhaps, their faint air of surprise that anyone should think they could behave any other way. Some are pioneering surgeons, like Thomas Starzl, whose dedication and imagination helped lead a revolution in transplantation, but who never forgot the person inside the patient. Starzl was named the most frequently cited scientist in clinical medicine in the last twenty years by the Institute for Scientific Information. But, when I asked a nurse who had worked with him what she remembered best, it wasn't his technical innovations or that he had performed the world's first liver transplant, but that he was likely to ask a resident doctor who had presented him with a chart of figures, "What color are her eyes?"

In Italy, Giorgio Brumat, who started AIDO, the main organ donation group there, had to work for years, almost single-handedly and with only the most primitive guidelines, to interest people who were either shocked or indifferent to transplantation. He became concerned, he told me, because, working for a pharmaceutical company and calling on hospitals, he couldn't bear to see such a waste of life, especially young life, that the new techniques could cure. I've often wondered, however, how much his natural compassion was focused by all that happened to his father who, as a young man in Austrian-controlled Italy, was a prisoner of war in Russia in the First World War and died when Giorgio was three years old. I imagine the vision of life being cut off in its prime has been with him since then. Now AIDO, with a million members and an army of devoted volunteers-from Aosta and Alessandria in the extreme northwest to Agrigento on the southern coast of Sicily-has helped save thousands of people from unnecessary death. It's a legacy his father could never have dreamed of.

When I first met Kenneth Moritsugu, the Deputy Surgeon General of the United States, he had already donated his late wife's organs, and his natural good humor came with an air of sadness. He was busy everywhere, organizing, speaking at conferences, running workshops. He described donation as "ordinary people doing extraordinary things." But that was not the end of it. Incredibly, two years later, one of his two daughters was killed by a car while crossing the street. He donated her organs too and still went on with his work of encouragement and education. I can't think of him as anything else than an extraordinary man doing extraordinary things.

Commitment comes in all forms. At a transplant meeting, I met a woman who has had five kidney transplants, one of which lasted for years. Instead of hiding away and worrying about the future, she is an active volunteer who hits head-on the fears of people on the waiting list. "Yes, your body can reject the new organ," she says. "But even if it does, that doesn't have to be the end of everything. Look at me." "Do you know who your donor is?" I asked Mikie, a kidney recipient, at a tree-planting ceremony in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. "Here she is," she answered, pointing to another young woman, about her own age, standing close by. "Were you best friends?" I asked, having come across this kind of selflessness among people who have grown up together. "No," she said. "She was my bank teller." It turned out to be literally true. One day at the bank, the teller, Mary, who knew her only casually had said, "You don't look so good. What's the matter?" and had found out that her kidneys were failing and no one in her family, all of whom had volunteered to help, was a match. Mary had then gone to the hospital, the University of California, San Francisco, Medical Center, volunteered to be a donor, and went through with it. "Why?" I asked. "I just felt it was the right thing to do," she said, with a conviction so absolute I wondered why I'd even asked. Am I na´ve, I wonder, in thinking people like these are much more common than we generally assume? Experience tells me they exist in every niche of society, quietly but steadily giving the rest of us a clearer view of the stars.

Chapter 13 | Back to Table of Contents


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