The Greatest Gift

By Perry, Patrick | The Saturday Evening Post, January-February 1995 | Go to article overview

The Greatest Gift


Perry, Patrick, The Saturday Evening Post


When bandits fatally shot seven-year-old Nicholas Green of California while the family was vacationing in southern Italy, his grieving parents made a difficult decision. Nicholas' life had been wasted in a senseless tragedy, but the boy's parents, Reginald and Maggie Green, wanted his healthy organs to bring life to others. Nicholas' donated heart went to a 15-year-old boy with congenital heart problems, his liver to a 19-year-old Sicilian woman, and his kidneys to two other children.

The Green's magnanimous act touched people across the world. Calls to the Organ Donor Association in Italy, a country with one of the world's lowest organ donation rates, increased fivefold after Nicholas' death, according to Pier Geatano Dellan, agency director. The worldwide publicity also focused national attention onto the 36,500 Americans presently on transplant waiting lists. Each day, the lists grow. Each day, eight or nine die waiting.

Last September, Rick and Theresa Leibold of Indianapolis were anxiously awaiting the birth of their second child. With the nursery ready and a smooth pregnancy, the young couple anticipated no problems. Moments after a normal delivery, however, the pediatrician became concerned about the infant's pale color. As a precaution, he rushed the newborn, Samuel Richard, to intensive care. Little Sam was, in fact, very ill. Born without the upper left chamber of his heart, he would not survive without drastic medical intervention. The Leibolds were confronted with two options: the first, a surgical heart repair that had proved statistically less successful than the couple's second possible option, a transplant.

"The information the doctors were giving us was not at all hopeful," Rick Leibold recalls. "We felt, however, that the grace of God was with us the whole time. Things were going to work out."

Sam's name was immediately placed on an organ donor waiting list, joining 36,500 other Americans in need of organ transplants. A week later, the Leibolds received a call. A suitable infant heart had become available and prequalified for their son. After a complicated but successful transplant surgery, Samuel Richard Leibold went home with his parents and three-year-old sister, McKenna, in late October.

"Sam should live a normal life," Rick says. "The doctors anticipate his being a normal child. The prognosis is great!"

But Sam was one of the lucky ones.

For others, the future is less hopeful because the demand for donor organs far outpaces the supply. Although organ transplantation is one of the most remarkable chapters in medical history, the biggest obstacle transplant science faces today is the severe shortage of suitable organs to transplant.

"In 1993, more than 50,000 transplant patients were registered on the national waiting list over the course of the year," says Joel Newman, spokesperson for United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS), the national organization that oversees the allocation of all donated organs in the United States. "Unfortunately, 3,000 died waiting."

Certainly, no one knows the story better than the transplant teams.

"The more you are able to achieve success in patients, the more frustrated you are by the inability to get adequate numbers of donors when you know that if you had them, you would achieve a lot," says Dr. Joel Cooper, who performed the first successful single- and double-lung transplant and is now performing transplants at Barnes Hospital in St. Louis.

Dr. Cooper is hopeful that research into the use of organs from another animal species will someday help eliminate this critical shortage and save lives. But the process, known as xenografting, is still 15 or 20 years away at best.

Ironically, national Gallup polls and local surveys indicate that 85 percent of Americans believe in organ donation, but they fail to take the critical step of conveying those wishes to family members. Many assume it is enough just to fill out the back of a driver's license or an organ donor card, but this does not ensure donation will take place. …

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