Smith: Nicholas Green's parents return to Italy, 25 years after he was killed

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Sunday will be a quarter century to the day since a true nightmare occurred as the vacationing Nicholas Green, an unmistakably kind and imaginative 7-year-old from Bodega Bay, slept in the backseat of a car on a darkened highway in southern Italy.

Would-be bandits in a second car tried to force Nicholas’ dad, Reg, to pull over. Fearing for his wife and two children, Reg was accelerating when a gunshot shattered one of the rental car’s rear side windows.

The Greens got away but the lives of Reg and Maggie and their daughter, Eleanor, then 4, struck their lowest point the instant they realized that Nicholas had taken a bullet to the head.

The world was changed days later when, at Maggie Green’s suggestion, she and Reg donated Nicholas’ internal organs and corneas to seven Italians, five of them critically ill.

Throughout heartsick Italy and far beyond, the story and what became known as the Nicholas Effect touched hearts and opened minds to the prospect of registering as a potential donor or being open, in the event of a tragedy, to donating a loved one’s vital organs.

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AT THIS MOMENT, Maggie and Reg Green, whose recovery from the shooting of their son on Sept. 29, 1994, included welcoming twins Laura and Martin and moving from Bodega Bay to near Pasadena, prepare to return to Italy.

They’ll arrive on Sunday, the anniversary day. They’ll get ready for a conference on organ donation to begin the following day at the university hospital in Messina at which Nicholas died.

The Greens will meet, once again, some special and especially grateful Italians. One is Maria Pia Pedala, who was 19 the night she received the gift of life from Nicholas and his parents.

“She was on her deathbed that night,” Reg recalled. “She was dying of a hereditary liver disease.”

Pedala received Nicholas’ liver. She fully recovered, became an advocate of organ donation, married and gave birth to a son she and her husband named Nicholas. Reg Green said Pedala’s Nicholas shows no signs of the liver disease that plagued his family prior to the transplant, and he serves in Italy’s navy.

The Greens also will meet at the Messina conference Domenica Galletta, who never saw her daughter until she received one of Nicholas Green’s corneas, and with Francesco Mondello, who was a young dad when he received the Sonoma County boy’s other cornea.

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THE PURPOSE of the Greens’ trip to Italy, and of the conference at the hospital at which they 25 years ago made the loving but harrowing decision at the bedside of their mortally wounded son, is simple:

To help keep the Nicholas Effect alive by sustaining the message that humanity can and must do better with the transplanting of organs from people taken away by tragedies such as the one that claimed Nicholas.

“In the U.S. every day 20 people on the waiting list for a transplant die,” said Reg, who following his son’s death dedicated his life to promoting organ donation. He wrote two books on the subject, founded the Nicholas Green Foundation and worked with Jamie Lee Curtis and Alan Bates on the 1998 made-for-TV movie “Nicholas’ Gift.”

“It is heartbreaking to see patients on the waiting list dying, many of them young, some just babies, because of the failure of one organ that could easily be replaced,” Reg said.

“All it takes is a simple ‘yes.’ ”

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THERE ARE TWO aspects of the Nicholas Effect that Reg, who’s now 90, is eager to sustain.

One is, of course, a greater willingness by people across the country and the world to talk openly about and to prepare for the possible donation of one’s own or a family member’s organs.

The impact that the killing of Nicholas and his parents’ subsequent act of caring had on organ donation in Italy was historic.

Ten years after the shooting and the gift, organ donation rates in the long-resistant country had tripled. Other nations witnessed lesser but still considerable increases in organ transplants that save or restore lives.

That response, Reg said, is the reason that “literally thousands of people” are alive today in Italy and elsewhere who would not be had they not received organ donations inspired by the Nicholas Effect.

Its second effect, Reg said, is the perception that is a kinder, gentler planet that makes vital organs available to people well aware that their lives depend on a transplant.

Reg said he and Maggie continue to hear from people who believe that what they did as their son lay brain-dead in 1994, and what others in similarly devastating situations do every day, brings hope to the world.

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TWENTY-FIVE YEARS after Nicholas died, his kid sister, Eleanor, is teaching high school in Los Angeles. In July 2018, Eleanor and Matt Burgette recited their wedding vows alongside the tower at the Bodega Bay Community Center that bears 140 bells donated in honor of Nicholas by people from all over Italy.

Twins Martin and Laura Green, who never knew Nicholas, turned 23 in May.

Their mother, Maggie, pursues a passion she shared with her theatrical first son by working as a costumer for Los Angeles’ Pacific Opera Project.

Had the tragedy of Sept. 29, 1994, not happened, Nicholas would have turned 32 earlier this month. To imagine what he’d be doing today, his dad projects forward from memories of his boy dashing about as Robin Hood and coming to the aid of people in need, or quite intentionally playing at school with kids who’d been shut out or ignored.

For good reason, it makes Reg Green proud that there were kings who weren’t remembered as long as people around the world have kept alive the memory of Nicholas.

Returning to Italy this week is part of an aging father’s quest to keep his slain son’s legacy saving lives forever.

You can contact Chris Smith at 707-521-5211 and chris.smith@pressdemocrat.com.

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