Six years ago, Reginald Green could not have imagined that promoting organ donation would become his passion.
At 66, the British-born journalist was making a good buck as editor of the Mutual Fund News Service, and living happily in Bodega Bay, Calif., with his wife, Maggie, 33, and children Nicholas, 7, and Eleanor, 4.
Then, tragedy struck. As the family drove along a dark highway while vacationing in Sicily, masked bandits pulled alongside and fired shots into their car. A bullet struck the sleeping Nicholas in the head. When he died two days later, Reginald and Maggie Green, in a move that made headlines around the world, decided to donate his organs, which were given to seven Italians.
Now Green preaches organ donation whenever and wherever he can find an audience. That crusade will bring him Thursday to the Radisson Hotel in Cheektowaga for the second annual community recognition dinner of Upstate New York Transplant Services. The fund-raiser will begin with cocktails at 6 p.m.
"The words are sometimes different," Green said by telephone, "but the message is always the same: Organ donation rates around the world are not meeting the need. It is an acute problem everywhere."
In the United States, even though donation rates are rising, "12 people die every day for lack of one organ," he added.
The greatest obstacle to achieving balance between supply and demand is the lingering mystery surrounding transplantation, and the irrational fears it conjures up.
To illustrate the problem, Green tells the story of a woman -- a nurse -- who, soon after her mother died, approached her father about donating the organs.
"Don't you think your mother has suffered enough?" the father replied.
Green works hard at bringing logic to bear.
"Every decision to donate organs can affect many other people. In our case it was seven. Sometimes it can be as many as 20 or 30," he said.
"So you have the fate of all those families in your hands. Instead of thinking, 'What's this doing to me?,' project what you can do for other people. You can save them from the same devastation you are going through. So why not?"
In their case, the Greens managed to put aside their grief momentarily by considering the good that could come from donating Nicholas' healthy organs.
"It was an obvious decision," Reg Green said. "We were clearly not harming him in any way. There was no sense of horror. The physicians are very careful, very respectful of the body."
As a result of the Greens' selfless act, the story took an uplifting turn. Seven people received Nicholas' organs. His heart went to a 15-year-old boy whose heart problems since birth had stunted his growth. Nicholas' liver was donated to a 19-year-old woman, his kidneys to two children, his pancreas to a diabetic and his corneas to a 43-year-old man and a 30-year-old woman.
In short order, Italy's organ donation rate shot up from one of Europe's lowest to one of the highest. Green, the seasoned journalist, decided to do what he does best -- write about the episode. The phenomenal increase in donations gave his book its title: "The Nicholas Effect." The book was later turned into a TV movie, "Nicholas' Gift."
The Greens' pain was softened in 1996 by the birth of twins Laura and Martin. They also find comfort in knowing that, thanks largely to improved transplant techniques and better anti-rejection drugs, all of those who received their son's organs are still healthy.
At a recent global transplantation meeting in Rome, Green was reunited with the woman who received Nicholas' liver. At the time, she was near death from liver disease. Now she has a 2-year-old, whom she and her husband named Nicholas, and is pregnant again.
"They write to us at Christmastime. They're like an extended family," he said.
But memories of Nicholas, and the cause of organ donation, remain precious.
A few days after Nicholas died, Maggie Green, reflecting on their decision to donate, told her husband: "There are not many things that can save lives simply by being talked about. This is one of them."
Every time he agrees to speak on organ donation, Reg Green said, his wife's words come to mind.