A Simple Act

A Simple Act

From A 6th Bowl of Chicken Soup for the Soul

A Simple Act

When our family—my wife Maggie, our four-year-old Eleanor, and I—drove through Messina, Sicily, to our hotel in the early hours of the morning one day last September, I felt I had never been in a bleaker place. We didn’t know a soul, the streets were deserted, and we were leaving the hospital where our seven-year-old son lay in a deep and dreadful coma.

We wanted only to go home, to take Nicholas with us, however badly injured, to help nurse him through whatever he faced, to hold his hand again, to put our arms around him.

It had been the worst night of our lives.

The next morning we took a bus back to the hospital. There had been no deterioration but no improvement either. “You know, there are miracles,” said the man who had been appointed to act as our interpreter, but the doctors looked grave. In lives that only a few hours before had been full of warmth and laughter, there was now a gnawing emptiness.

Within days our intensely personal experience erupted into a worldwide story. Newspapers and television told of the shooting attack by car bandits, Nicholas’s death and our decision to donate his organs. Since then streets, schools, scholarships and hospitals all over Italy have been named for him. We have received honors previously reserved largely for kings and presidents, prizes that go mainly to Nobelists and awards usually given to spiritual leaders of the stature of Mother Teresa. Maria Shriver, who all her life has been told by people where they were when President Kennedy was shot, told us where she was when she heard about Nicholas. Strangers come up to us on the street still, tears in their eyes.

We have received letters from about a thousand people around the world, written with a simple eloquence possible only when it comes straight from the heart. A forty-year-old American, who recently became blind, said our story had given him the strength to resist despair. One man who was close to death now has a new lung because someone was moved by what happened to Nicholas. A woman who lost her four-year-old daughter imagines the two children playing happily together in a place where there is no violence.

All this for a decision that seemed so obvious we’ve forgotten which of us suggested it.

I remember the hushed room and the physicians standing in a small group, hesitant to ask crass questions about organ donation. As it happens, we were able to relieve them of the thankless task. We looked at each other. “Now that he’s gone, shouldn’t we give the organs?” one of us asked. “Yes,” the other replied. And that was all there was to it.

Our decision was not clouded by any doubts about the medical staff. We were convinced they had done everything in their power to save Nicholas. To be sure, we asked how they knew his brain was truly dead, and they described their high-tech methods in clear, simple language. It helped. But more than that, it was the bond of trust that had been established from the beginning that left no doubt they would not have given up until all hope was gone.

Yet we’ve been asked a hundred times: How could you have done it? And a hundred times we’ve searched for words to convey the sense of how clear and how right the choice seemed. Nicholas was dead. He no longer looked like a sleeping child. By giving his organs we weren’t hurting him but we were helping others.

For us, Nicholas will always live, in our hearts and our memories. But he wasn’t in that body anymore.

His toys are still here, including the flag on his log fort, which I put at half-staff when we returned home and which has stayed that way ever since. We have assembled all his photographs, starting with the blur I snapped a few moments after he was born. Nicholas now lies in a peaceful country churchyard in California, dressed for eternity in the kind of blue blazer and neat slacks he liked and a tie with Goofy on it.

Donating his organs, then, wasn’t a particularly magnanimous act. But not to have given them would have seemed to us such an act of miserliness that we don’t believe we could have thought about it later without shame. The future of a radiant little creature had been taken away. It was important to us that someone else should have that future.

It turned out to be seven people’s future, most of them young, most very sick. One nineteen-year-old within forty-eight hours of death (“We’d given up on her,” her physician told me later) is now a vivacious beauty who turns heads as she walks down the street. The sixty-pound fifteen-year-old who got Nicholas’s heart had spent half his life in hospitals; now he’s a relentless bundle of energy. One of the recipients, when told by his doctors to think of something nice as he was taken to the operating theater, said, “I am thinking of something nice. I’m thinking of Nicholas.” I recently visited him at school; he’s a wonderful little fellow any father would be proud of and, I admit, I did feel pride. The man who received one of Nicholas’s corneas told us that at one time he was unable to see his children. Now, after two operations, he happily watches his daughter fencing and his son play rugby.

We are pleased the publicity this incident has caused has led to such a dramatic arousal of interest in organ donation. It seems unfair, however, to the thousands of parents and children, who, in lonely hospital waiting rooms around the world, have made exactly the same decision. Their loss is indistinguishable from ours, but their willingness to share rather than to hoard life has remained largely unrecognized.

I imagine that for them, like us, the emptiness is always close by. I don’t believe Maggie and I will ever be really happy again; even our best moments are tinged with sadness. But our joy in seeing so much eager life that would otherwise have been lost, and the relief on the families’ faces, is so uplifting that it has given us some recompense for what otherwise would have been just a sordid act of violence.

Reg Green

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