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The Nicholas Effect
The Nicholas Effect


Chapter Eighteen: Speeches and More Speeches

Within a few weeks of Nicholas' death, the World Children's Transplant Fund invited us to speak at their annual dinner. The effect of Nicholas' story was powerful, a room full of men in well-cut tuxedos and women in beautiful evening dresses crying quietly. Jerry Buss, owner of the Los Angeles Lakers, who was being honored for his contributions to the organ transplant cause, stood up to reply. He mentioned Nicholas and started to tell a story of his own son's life-threatening illness and subsequent recovery, but, overcome by the fearful idea of young death, couldn't finish it.

The children's fund was started by Mark Kroeker, a Los Angeles deputy police chief, after he had tried forcefully, then desperately, to save the life of a young girl from Argentina, Veronica Arguello. In the end, after three liver transplants, she died. But what might have crushed others only persuaded him to do more, and now the group he started in sorrow for one faraway family brings inexpressible relief to others.

Among the people who crowded round our table at the end of the evening was a member of the Lakers' squad. "You've changed my mind tonight. I'm going to sign that donor card tomorrow," he said. Emotional responses are fragile and, when the mood wore off, perhaps he wouldn't do anything. But the degree of conviction in that voice, repeated by others dozens and dozens of times over the following months, has convinced me that something is changing.

Other invitations followed swiftly, first from LifeGift, the organ procurement group in Fort Worth, who made it difficult to say no-"I want you to get them up on their feet and then down on their knees," one of the organizers told us-and then the Circle of Life in Dallas, who were planning a lunchtime meeting of a thousand influential people, transplant surgeons and hospital administrators, bankers and industrialists, civic leaders and healthcare workers.

Tom Landry, the legendary Dallas Cowboys coach, and his wife, Alicia, were there too, keeping an imminent personal tragedy to themselves. Their daughter, Lisa, when pregnant, had been found to have cancer. She was told she could be treated, but would lose her baby. She steadfastly refused, gave birth to a beautiful baby girl, and then had a liver transplant. The cancer came back, however, and when we were in Dallas she was weakening fast. Neither of the Landrys said a word publicly, but a few weeks later she died, without regrets for her decision. "Lisa said those years with her daughter were the happiest of her life," Alicia told us.

Time was scarce and it was obvious that we needed some way of packaging our message and sending it around the country. That was when I thought of making a video. It was all delightfully simple. Jack [Jones of Corporate Productions, the film company we'd chosen]asked questions to bring out the points we'd all agreed on, we talked and they rolled the cameras. A few weeks later, we looked at the rough cuts and saw what a work of art it was. The raw material had been shaped into a story that captured a little life, while making the case for organ donations in the most telling way possible, from the heart. We've taken it everywhere, and in those darkened rooms, people cry silently and come out converts. "I've seen it fifty times," one veteran healthcare executive in Texas confided, "and every time I bawl like a baby." When we first thought about it, I'd have been satisfied if we'd sold three hundred copies. It's now three thousand and still growing.

As far as we know, it did its job with all these segments of society. "We've all seen it so often we know every word," the head of one of the most experienced organ procurement teams told me. "Every time the audience cries. And every time we cry too."

Is all this helping change minds? I don't doubt it. I've met literally dozens of people who have said they signed a donor card after watching it.

At a meeting in the South, a member of the organ procurement team took me aside. "We show the movie all over the state," he said. "A few months ago, when I went to one of our hospitals, a woman came up to me. `You won't remember me,' she said, `but I was in the group here when you showed the video about those people in Italy. A few weeks later'-and she paused-`my son was killed in a road accident. I donated his organs and now I work here as a volunteer. I just want to say thank you. It helped.' "

Every meeting contained a surprise. In Sacramento, a surgeon who has been transplanting hearts for ten years said he's still amazed that, when something looking like what you might see at the butcher's is put in a new body, it suddenly springs steadily and powerfully to life. At a seminar in Berkeley, a nun made an appeal for organ donation. "There's a widespread impression that nuns look forward to dying," she said. "It isn't so. Everyone wants a chance to go on living."

The reactions at these meetings confound all notions that transplantation is a subject people don't want to hear about. After one talk, a woman with a kindly face told me that when her three-and-a-half-year-old daughter had been killed in a car accident she was unable to donate the organs because of some mix-up. "And that hurts so much," she said, her eyes filling with tears. Now she attends meetings like this, working long and late as a volunteer, to repair an omission she feels is somehow her fault.

Roche Laboratories phoned to say the company had brought out a new drug to reduce rejection in kidney transplants and asked me to speak at a meeting they were planning in Houston for doctors and sales representatives. It's easy to imagine what hopes lie in that little pill and others like it: an organ is donated, the fading hopes of a desperately ill patient are sent soaring, and the medical team puts its skills and emotions into saving a life that only a few hours before seemed over. And then, agonizingly, the body starts to reject the new organ. Anyone who can reverse that process has a magic wand in his hand.

The talk was at a dinner in the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, a setting to bring out the best in everyone: the gleaming floor, the snow-white tablecloths and glistening glassware, the huge windows looking out to a spectacular sunset, Monet and Renoir looking at us. I showed the video, during which there was the now-familiar mixture of rapt attention and discreet sniffling, and then talked about our experience.

There were about eighty people in the room, and most of them came over afterward to say those unreservedly personal things this subject seems to bring out. Many had been crying, some still were. One said, "You've changed my life." Another, a doctor, said he'd switched from pediatrics to transplants two years before and had been having doubts about having made the right decision. "Tonight helped convince me I did the right thing," he said.

The next morning, I had confirmation that these comments were more than just passing fancies. At 6.30 a.m., waiting to go to the airport and with last night's emotion safely tucked away, one of the doctors walked across the hotel lobby and said, "That was the most moving experience of my life."

Viva Nicholas.

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