From the Archives, 1984: Heart transplant recipient’s perfect match

First published in The Age on April 9, 1984

Fiona, 14, critical after heart transplant

A 14-year-old girl from Tamworth, New South Wales, yesterday became Australia’s youngest heart transplant patient.

Fiona Coote and hospital staff, Sister Rosina Johnston and nurse Michel Imbertt after the operation.

Fiona Coote is in a critical condition after undergoing the three-hour operation at St Vincent’s Hospital early yesterday morning. A hospital spokesman said yesterday there had been no deterioration in the crucial post-operative period.

Fiona was transferred in a serious condition from North Shore Hospital to Sydney’s St Vincent’s in the early hours of yesterday morning. The operation, which began at 8 am, was performed by a team of doctors led by the head of the hospital’s heart transplant unit, Dr Victor Chang.

Dr Chang said the operation was a success, but Fiona’s body will start rejecting the heart in about four days. “The rejection process now has to be overcome, this may take months,” he said. Dr Chang said the initial rejection usually lasted for about a week. The first 24 hours after the operation would cause the most concern, he said.

Doctors yesterday refused to release details of the heart donor, but Dr Chang said the size of the heart was “perfect”, age compatibility was good and tissue matching was excellent.

The donor of Fiona’s heart could have been aged up to 45 years, but not younger than herself. A donor must have blood group and tissue compatibility with the patient. Doctors spent several hours on Saturday night checking such details before the operation was approved.

Fiona was rushed to Sydney’s North Shore Hospital from Manilla, a small town near Tamworth, last Thursday. She has a rare condition called cardio-myopathy, which causes the heart to stop contracting and pumping properly. It usually affects young people.

Fiona’s parents had been told that if she did not receive a donor heart she would die in just a few days. Her mother, Mrs Judy Coote, said yesterday it was difficult to accept that somebody had to die to save her daughter but the family was “naturally relieved” when told a heart might be available.

Mrs Coote said she and her husband Terry told Fiona she would have a heart operation. “But we didn’t say it was a transplant… she responded by opening her eyes and squeezing my hand,” Mrs Coote said.

The Cootes made a public plea last week to the relatives of anyone who died in the next few days. They asked for any such relatives to give permission for a heart to be donated. After the publicity, several people rang North Shore Hospital offering their own hearts. (Australian law makes it illegal to take an organ from a person not brain dead.)

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