Nicholas Green – boy who 'lived seven times'

A portrait of Reginald Green by Margaret Stenhouse

 ROME-- How the sacrifice of one small boy has gone on to save thousands of lives. “The children's bell tower in Bodega Bay is a magical place ... Nicholas' name and the names of the seven recipients are on it, and Pope John Paul II went to the foundry to bless it. Whenever the wind blows, as it often does on this exposed coast, the bells chime, sometimes a few at a time, emphasizing the solitude of the surroundings, sometimes an entire orchestra, sounding like happy children at play.” With these poetic words, Reginald Green describes the monument erected to the memory of his son in his book “The Nicholas Effect”.  

 The Children's Bell Tower of Bodega Bay (California) is hung with 140 bells of all shapes and sizes. Almost all are donated by Italians – individuals, families, schools, parishes and institutions. “Every bell has a story,” Reg Green told me on his recent visit to Rome, where he was invited to appear on the Italian TV programme “RAI Uno Mattino”. “The main bell comes from the Marinelli Foundry in Molise, which has been making bells for the Vatican for over a thousand years. Lots of people come here to see the Bell Tower. It's become a place of pilgrimage. When the California Coastal trail from Mexico to Oregon is completed there'll be a branch road leading off it to here.”

 Nicholas, a seven-year old American boy, was shot by two highway robbers on the 29th September 1994 while on holiday in Italy with his family. They had been to Rome and Pompeii and were driving along the Salerno-Reggio Calabria highway on their way to Sicily. Nicholas loved ancient Roman history and classical mythology. He was keen to see the Straits of Messina where the monsters Scylla and Cariddi lurked to catch hapless mariners in Homer's Odessey.  Unfortunately, the family were destined to meet other, real life, monsters  -  a couple of armed gangsters who were lurking near the exit for Vibo Valentia pulled out and began to pursue them. It was late at night and the road was deserted. When Reg refused to stop they fired several warning shots, smashing the windows of the car.    A bullet hit Nicholas who was asleep in the back seat with his little sister Eleanor. 

 Nicholas never woke up. Transferred urgently to Messina Hospital, he lingered for two days, attached to life support machines. At first, his parents, Maggie and Reg, clung onto the hope that their son would  suvive but at last doctors gently told them he was brain dead. It was his mother, Maggie, who first suggested they donate their child's organs, a gesture that was virtually unheard of in Italy at that time.

 “We agreed that this was what  Nicholas would have wanted. He was a kind, considerate child.  He always played with the children the other kids wouldn't play with. He always looked for the best in everything,” 

 Thanks to the Green's generosity and altruism, their boy's heart, kidneys, liver, corneas and pancreas cells transformed – and in some cases saved - the lives of seven Italian recipients,

The incident caused an uproar all over the country. Italians were shocked and horrified that criminals would attack foreign holidaymakers. The fact that a child had been killed touched the nation's heart.  The Greens were flooded with messages of sympathy and support from all levels of society. 

 “People asked me if I hated Italy after what had happened. They were astounded that we had been prepared to donate Nicholas' organs to help sick Italians. But how could we hate Italy! I don't think any other country would have shown us so much kindness and solidarity. The response was overwhelming” 

 Soon after their son's death, the Greens set up the Nicholas Green Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting awareness of the importance of organ donation. Reg continues tirelessly to travel all over the world to put the message across. 

 “We want to concentrate now on countries like Venezuela, Thailand and Russia where organ donations are very low. In Italy, the number of donors has quadruplicated in the last few years. It has become one of the countries with the highest increase rate of donors in the world. This is what I care about. We never thought of Nicholas living on. Never thought of it being his heart in another body. Saving lives has been the dominant thing. Our consolation is that thousands of people are alive today who would otherwise have died.”

 Nicholas' heart was transplanted into the body of a fifteen year old Andrea Mongiardo, who gained another 22 years of life. He died in February this year from a tumour. To the Greens, it was like losing a member of the family. They had met all the recipients of their son's organs and kept in touch with most of them over the years. The most heartening success story is the case of liver transplant recipient Maria Pia Pedalà, who has gone on to enjoy a normal life. She married and named her first baby Nicholas.

 Reg, a former Fleet Street journalist, has written two books on the subject: “The Nicholas Effect” and “The Gift that Heals”. Four years after the tragedy, the Greens were approached by several Hollywood producers who proposed making a film about their experience.

 “At first we were very reluctant. We were afraid the facts would be distorted. However, we thought that the director, Robert Markowitz, seemed to have a sensitive approach.”

 The resulting TV movie, “Nicholas' Gift”, won Jamie Lee Curtis (who played Maggie) a Primetime Emmy nomination.” The English actor Alan Bates was chosen to play the part of Reg, who has preserved his soft North of England accent despite having lived most of his life in the USA. The film was subsequently shown on international circuits, helping to promote the Foundation's message, while a shorter version has been made for distribution in schools.

 The memory of  the small boy with wind-blown hair and a freckled nose, smiling out from his photo on the Foundation website, is still very much alive in Italy, where over a hundred streets, parks, piazzas, schools and even a string of Neapolitan coffee bars, are named after him. There is an international ski race for transplanted children in his name, as well as a children's football cup at Villaverla (Vicenza).  

 Italy has also a Nicholas Green monument of bells, suspended in the foyer of the headquarters of the Calabrian Regional Council. Donated by the Greens, the sculpture contains seven bells crowned with doves of peace, forged from melted down firearms confiscated by the police.

 “It's not enough to enrol yourself as a donor. It's very important to let your family know your wishes so they are prepared,” Reg advises. “Organs are only usable in certain circumstances, such as after an accident when the victim is pronounced brain dead. To be asked there and then to consent to having a loved one's organs removed is too much for most people. So the key principle is to make sure those near to you know your intentions if anything happens. In Italy, at least one person dies daily, waiting for a transplant. The important thing is to be aware that your gesture can save lives.”

 Life moves on, even after tragedy. Reg and Maggie had twins in 1996. Their other daughter, Eleanor, who survived the shooting attack, is now an adult and making her way successfully in the world.  

 “Nicholas was a special little boy. We were always sure he would do marvellous things when he grew up. And he has, if in a very different way from what we imagined. When he died, everything seemed black and hopeless, but then suddenly we were given a unique opportunity. His story was the catalyst that changed the mentality of a whole nation.”