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Nicholas' gift of life is his enduring legacy

Fifteen years ago, on Sept. 29 on the main road south from Rome to Sicily, my 7-year-old son, Nicholas, was shot by men who mistook our rented car for one delivering jewelry to local stores. That, apart from a lifetime of sorrow, could have been the end of the story. Instead, for a decision so obvious that my wife, Maggie, and I didn't even need to debate it, it captured the world's imagination.

For two days Nicholas' life quietly drained away. In death, as in life, he was no trouble to anyone. All brain activity ceased 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.

On Oct. 1, Maggie said to me, "Now that he's gone, shouldn't we donate the organs?" and I said, "yes." That's all there was to it. It was so clear that he didn't need that body any more but that somewhere out there -- you couldn't visualize what they looked like -- were people who desperately did need what that body could provide.

There were seven of them, all Italians: two of them, each a parent of young children, who were going blind; a boy of 15, who had had five operations on his heart, all of which had failed, and now could scarcely walk to the door of his apartment; two teenagers with kidney disease, whose entire childhood had been spent hooked to dialysis machines that cleansed their blood, four hours a day, three days a week; a diabetic who had been repeatedly in comas, couldn't walk alone and was losing her sight; and a 19-year old who was dying of liver failure that very day.

The transplants rejuvenated all of them and some have never been healthier. Maria Pia, the 19-year-old, bounced back to health. She married and had a baby, a boy, whom they have called Nicholas, and subsequently a girl -- two whole lives that would never have been and, at last report, in a family with a long history of liver disease, the livers of all three were working perfectly.

Better still, organ donation rates in Italy, which were next to the lowest in Western Europe, have more than quadrupled, a rate of growth not even remotely approached by any other country. As a result, thousands of people are alive who would have died.

The story, headlined around the world, shocked people everywhere into the realization that one day their own life might depend on the willingness of a family to set their grief aside long enough to donate the organs of someone they had just lost to complete strangers. Many asked themselves: "Could I do that?"

They also learned that, although thousands of families do make that decision every year, the supply falls short of the need in almost every country. Hence the importance of everyone, who believes this is the right thing to do, registering as a potential donor. It can be done simply and quickly by going to the Donate Life America Web site (www.donatelife.net) or calling 800-355-7427.

In the past 15 years we have met hundreds, perhaps thousands, of donor families who overwhelmingly were glad they had said yes. It is the people who didn't donate who say, with tears in their eyes, "I wish I had done that." At the time they were too shocked or weren't asked or just didn't know enough. Now they feel they missed an unrepeatable opportunity to make the world a better place.

The intensity of feeling comes out in the e-mails and letters that to this day we receive in a steady stream. A young woman in Rome wrote this: "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.' "

A special anniversary edition of Reg Green's book, "The Nicholas Effect," has just been published by AuthorHouse. The Greens' Web site is www.nicholasgreen.org.

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