His family's generosity in the face of tragedy changed attitudes about organ donation in Italy and around the world.
When 7-year-old Nicholas Green was shot and killed on October 1, 1994, while vacationing in southern Italy with his family, the story made headlines all across Italy.
The shocking murder, which was a case of mistaken identity (highway robbers thought the Greens’ car was a jeweler’s and shot Nicholas in the head while he and his sister were sleeping in the back seat), was newsworthy in itself, but what captured the hearts and minds of Italians was the unheard of generosity of Nicholas’ family: When Nicholas died, the Greens chose to donate his organs.
Within hours of his death, seven Italians, including four teenagers, received his corneas, kidneys, liver, pancreatic islet cells and heart. The decision stunned a country where the rate of organ donation was among the lowest in Europe.
“Perhaps they do not realize how rare that gesture is in our country,” said Gregorio Botta, a columnist in the newspaper La Repubblica, wrote at the time. “Perhaps they do not realize that half the children with heart ailments in Italy do not make it and die while awaiting a transplant.”
Because of the Green family’s generosity, organ donations in Italy have more than tripled, and elementary schools and buildings across the country have been named after Nicholas. In what has been dubbed “the Nicholas Effect,” the Greens have effectively removed any stigma attached to organ donation and made life possible for thousands.
Italy’s reluctance to embrace organ donation had persisted in spite of the Catholic Church’s position in favor of it. Pope John Paul II, in Evangelium Vitae, wrote:
There is an everyday heroism, made up of gestures of sharing, big or small, which build up an authentic culture of life. A particularly praiseworthy example of such gestures is the donation of organs, performed in an ethically acceptable manner, with a view to offering a chance of health and even of life itself to the sick who sometimes have no other hope.
Today, Nicholas’s hometown of Bodega Bay, California, has erected a memorial in his honor, and in honor of all children who have given the gift of life. The Children’s Bell Tower, located just off Highway 1, is made up of 140 bells hanging from a steel tower. According to Atlas Obscura, the majority of the bells were donated from Italian schools, churches, ships and mines.
The names of the 7 Italians who received organ transplants because of one little boy’s donation are engraved on the largest bell, which Pope John Paul II had made in the papal foundry. As a gesture of Italy’s gratitude, the Italian Air Force flew it to California, where it hangs in the center of the tower.
The Green family continues to promote the cause of organ donation. Reg Green is the author of “The Nicholas Effect” A Boy’s Gift to the World, which tells family’s story of tragedy turned to hope. His second book, The Gift That Heals, chronicles the lives of 42 families who donated and received organ transplants.
In the book Green writes that organ donation is for everyone, and reminds people that it is “the right thing to do.”
“The sobering fact is that any one of us could need a new organ or tissue to save our lives. Only a small percentage can donate organs, so every decision is crucial but virtually anyone, however old or sick, can donate tissue: skin to cover excruciating burns, corneas to restore sight, bones to straighten spines or prevent amputations and corneas to restore sight — and virtually every one of us could be a donor,” Green writes. “The results of transplantation are astounding. However many times it happens, an inert organ, that has been taken from someone already dead, and springs suddenly into life in another dying body, still seems to most of us to have more in common with science fiction than regular medicine.”
Read more about the Nicholas Green Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to the cause of organ and tissue donation.