Fifteen years ago on the night that my seven-year-old son Nicholas was shot, we were on vacation, driving along the main road in Southern Italy between Naples and Sicily. He was asleep, propped up on the back seat next to his sister, four-year-old Eleanor, and I, driving beside my wife, Maggie, who was probably thinking as I often did on these long car rides: "How can anyone be this happy?"
All this changed when a car that had been following us ran alongside for a few seconds instead of overtaking, and through the night we heard loud, angry, savage cries – the words indistinguishable but clearly telling us to stop.
How to respond?
It seemed to me that if we did stop we would be completely at their mercy. So instead I accelerated. They accelerated, too. I floored the car, they floored theirs and the two cars raced alongside each other through the night.
A few seconds later, any illusions that this was just a reckless prank vanished, as a bullet shattered the window where the two children were sleeping. Maggie turned around to make sure they were safe. Both appeared to be sleeping peacefully. A second or two later, the driver's window was blown in.
By now we were beginning to pull away and at last they disappeared back into the night. It turned out later that they had mistaken our rental car, with its Rome license plates, for another that was delivering jewelry to stores. We raced on, looking for somewhere with lights and people.
As it happened, there had been an accident on the road and the police were already there. I stopped the car and got out. The interior light came on but Nicholas didn't move. I looked closer and saw his tongue was sticking out and there was a trace of vomit on his chin. One of those bullets had hit him in the head.
Watching our dreams die
Over the next two days his brain slowly died, and all the brightly-colored dreams of a young idealist, who had planned to do such deeds as the world has never known, died too.
For a while, Maggie and I sat silently holding hands and trying to absorb the finality of it all. I remember thinking, "How am I going to get through the rest of my life without him?" Never to run my fingers through his hair again, never to hear him say, "Goodnight, Daddy."
Then one of us – we don't remember who, but knowing her, I feel sure it was Maggie – said, "Now that he's gone, shouldn't we donate the organs?" The other one said "yes," and that's all there was to it. It was just so obvious: he didn't need that body anymore.
Seven lives changed
There were seven recipients, four of them teenagers and two others the parents of young children. Andrea was a boy of 15 who had had five operations on his heart, all of which had failed. By now he could scarcely walk to the door of his apartment. Domenica had never seen her baby's face clearly. Francesco, a keen sportsman, could no longer see his children play games. Two of the teenagers, Anna-Maria and Tino, had been hooked up to dialysis machines for years to ward off kidney failure, four hours a day, three days a week, and already aware that they might never become adults. Silvia was a diabetic who was going blind, had been in multiple comas and couldn't walk without help. Finally, there was a vivacious 19-year old girl, Maria Pia, who was in her final coma from liver failure.
Since then all seven have had new lives. To think of just one of them: Maria Pia, who bounced back to health, married in the full bloom of womanhood and has had two children, a boy and a girl -- two whole lives that would never have been. And yes, she named her boy Nicholas.
The worldwide impact
More than that, the story captured the imagination of the world. In Italy alone, organ donation rates have tripled so that thousands of people are alive, many of them children, who otherwise would have died. Obviously an increase of that magnitude – not even remotely approached in other developed countries – must have a variety of causes, but it seems clear that Nicholas' story was a catalyst that changed the attitude of an entire nation.
Organ donation goes beyond even life-saving surgery, however, to a new level of understanding. A young woman from Rome wrote this to us: "Since when your son has died, my heart is beating faster. I think that people, common persons, can change the world. When you go to the little graveyard place please say this to him, 'They closed your eyes, but you opened mine.'"
Please visit the Nicholas Green Foundation website to find out more about the importance of organ donation.