Fiona Coote didn't think she would live to see her 21st birthday. Nine
years after her second heart transplant, she has plenty to celebrate.
THERE was a time a few years ago when Fiona Coote found herself in a
situation in Melbourne which she did not like. It was to do with her acting
debut in a TV soap. But she was uneasy about what was happening around her.
So she made the appropriate phone call _ received in the expected mood of
horror and outrage _ remained firm, and went home to Sydney.
``I didn't even catch the plane," she giggled. ``I thought there might be a
fuss with people waiting for me at the other end.
She hired a little car, she said. With some difficulty, she found her way to
the Hume Highway, stayed overnight at a motel somewhere near Albury, arrived
home in Sydney and put the episode behind her.
She was about 18 or 19 at the time, and she was celebrated across Australia
as the teenager who had the heart transplants and battled on.
This Melbourne incident had come about as a result of her fame.
As she had blossomed into young womanhood and remained a celebrity, it was
also noticed that she was exceptionally good-looking. So the smart-thinking
people in television decided she would be a hit in Channel 10's `Neighbours'.
She was unsure about it all, but accepted the offer on strict conditions
regarding publicity and interviews.
This teenager had endured years of interviews, and she wanted a break. Her
conditions were accepted.
But as it turned out, they were not, after her arrival in Melbourne.
``I got sick of all the pressure from agents and from the television
channel, and all the hassle. I was no actress either. I was having trouble
learning all the lines.
The crunch came when a letter was poked under her door one morning, listing
about eight interviews lined up for that day, in between filming. That was when
she made her decision to quit and return to Sydney and she coolly carried it
out, somehow avoiding the blaze of publicity that could have erupted.
This story emerged after an innocent question from me as to whether she had
ever considered acting as a career. I had asked it because I too had noticed
that not only in photographs, but close-up in the flesh, Fiona has the sort of
regular features and vitality and beauty that would quite possibly be luminous
on the screen.
So much for that. She clearly has no regrets.
Fiona Coote's radiance is captivating. She greeted me in the Windsor Lounge
early on a Saturday morning as though we were old friends. (We had met once,
briefly.) Such is her vivacity and spirit that I wondered if I could possibly
discuss with her that one grim matter: in a decade or two it is likely that
Fiona Coote will no longer be with us.
Fiona is 23. She was Australia's youngest heart transplant recipient at 14.
At 16, she had to have another. Her body was rejecting the first. She has had a
rough and exhausting deal, yet to be with her you would swear it has all been
a joyful dance with the Munchkins along the Yellow Brick Road.
She lives alone in a flat near Bondi and works as a promotions figurehead for
Willow Valley, the cereal manufacturer. The idea is that the product is
healthy and Fiona is the perfect person to tell people that.
Fiona also works for the Victor Chang Foundation (the late Dr Chang was the
surgeon who did the transplants for Fiona), and an organisation called the
``What is the Starlight Foundation?" I asked.
``It grants wishes to critically and chronically ill children.
``Some terminally ill?" ``Yes. It just gives them something actually nice to
focus on. Perhaps some nice memories. With quite a lot of them, when they get
their wish, they go into remission.
``What sort of wishes?" I asked.
Fiona told me they usually fall into three categories: meeting a particular
celebrity (most from television or sport), going to Disneyland, or receiving a
computer or pet. The computers are a popular choice for those who are
``What has been the darkest moment of all for you?" I asked.
``The darkest!" Fiona had to think about that for a while. She was sipping
tea and we were the only people in the vast Windsor Lounge.
She had arrived on an early flight from Sydney, carrying only a leather
``Probably after the second transplant. When I was told I had to have the
second, it was awful.
``But while I was waiting for it, I had to wait four months, you go to the
hospital, you get to know the others ...
``There were these two boys I knew. They were having transplants too.
They used to come and have lunch with me.
``A week before I had my transplant, one of them died, suddenly. Then a week
after, the other died.
``Then the transplants on either side of me, they died. They contracted staph
(an infection). They went into a coma and died.
``I guess it was the uncertainty, with this infection in the hospital.
There was so much death around. There was so much despair.
``Were you in tears?" ``Well I was with the death of Chris and David. Chris
was 18 and David was 21. I didn't actually let anyone else know, but I was
``Chris had died very suddenly. An arrest in the corridor. David died in 24
hours. It was just a really uncertain time. They would probably have both
survived if they'd had the other transplant.
``I often wonder about that sort of thing with people who are perhaps close
to death and they know it," I said. ``I mean, what is the worst time ... when
it gets dark in the evening maybe?" ``No. Well, I had lots of close friends,
and the staff were great. If I was uncertain, patients used to visit me, one of
the doctors played cards with me. My parents stayed till nine or so. I'd be
pretty tired. So I had a good support system.
FIONA COOTE comes from a farming background. Her parents are still on the
land near Manilla, in northern New South Wales. She went to a private Catholic
school near Tamworth. ``Are you religious?" I asked.
``I used to be. With the first transplant I was. I'm not so much now.
When you see such dreadful things happen to little kids and families, it
really does make you question if the person up there really cares.
``You see little six-year-olds in such pain, going through chemotherapy.
Their mothers just waiting and waiting. They keep fighting. Kids just want to
``So you lost all your religion?" ``No, not all. It's just those situations.
I really believe there's someone up there. But it really upsets me to see how
life is so unfair to some people.
Some people. What about Fiona Coote! It was at this stage I decided to ask
her. ``Is it true that your life expectancy might be as little as ... 20 more
years?" ``Yeah. Well, 20 would be good!" Laughter, charming laughter. ``They
really don't know. They say 20. I've really had 10 already! It depends on the
quality of the grafts. In my case, it's a large heart and can take a fair
amount of punishment.
``Have you had anything go wrong?" ``No, not really. Some small problems
with wires. It's basically watching your diet, keeping your fluids up, not
drinking too much alcohol.
``I really want to know," I said, ``if you live in constant fear.
``No. You've got to get out there and enjoy it without being too much of a
brat. You have an obligation to the person who died so you could live.
``Do you know who it was?" ``No. It's an anonymous system.
``Do you wonder?" ``I sometimes wonder about the family and how they coped
with it. It's an amazing decision to make.
She was referring to people being confronted by the sudden and unexpected
death of a loved one, and making the decision that the heart could be passed
on. It turned out that there are some things Fiona Coote knows about the person
who died: she knows, for example, that it was a young man, and she knows what
his weight was. She also believes that his family probably know it was she who
was the recipient.
``How does the shortened life expectancy affect your thinking?" ``I guess it
doesn't. When I had the second, it did. I was lacking confidence. I didn't
expect to reach 21. But as time went by, I realised I was all right.
``But now, I really don't think. I was thinking the other day, fairly soon,
I'm going to be 24. I'm getting so old, it's wonderful! If you think you'll last
only a couple of years, then perhaps you will.
``Would you describe your life as normal?" ``I think so. I take more care of
myself than most people have to.
There's nothing that I can't do that I want to do. I do things that perhaps
I shouldn't. Snow skiing and water skiing are not all that safe.
Fiona Coote's early childhood was a happy one. The family properties amount
to 1200 hectares, and the main one, Galen is in a valley about eight kilometres
``I remember just having all the animals around. The pet calves and lambs we
had with each season. And there were dogs and cats.
``And freedom. Climbing the mountains. There was a pet calf called Matilda.
She's still there. I go home each year to see her new calf.
They're so cute when they're born, so clean. The goats don't do so well.
They only survive a couple of days if they lose their mother.
I had read somewhere that although Fiona looks after her sister's baby son
two days a week, she had decided that she did not want children herself. I
asked about this.
``Yeah, that's right. I used to think it would be wonderful, but it's so much
work!" ``A lot of people do it ..." I murmured, uncertainly. She gave a
``Well, yes. I guess the life expectancy has something to do with it.
And I don't know what pregnancy would do to me. I think it would be so
unfair to bring someone into the world, when perhaps I wouldn't always be
``I guess I can experience it through my sisters.
I was also aware that a Sydney tabloid paper had done an embarrassing beat-up
when they ``discovered" that Fiona Coote had a boyfriend. So I introduced the
subject with some care. She had been shocked by that experience. She told me
she now has a different boyfriend with whom she has done some travel, most
notably to New York because his work took him there. Their relationship has
been going two years.
``What is most important to you?" ``Probably family and friends. Mostly
enjoyment. Just being happy!
That is just so important.
``And you are happy?" ``I'm very happy. After all I've been through, if I
were to be miserable, what a terrible waste of time!" ``What sort of things do
you enjoy?" ``I love cooking. I'm vegetarian and I can't eat fish. I do eat
meat very occasionally. I've developed recipes using things like egg plant,
roasted sweet potato, different grains. I'm thinking about taking up the piano.
They used to make me play classical when I learned. Let me tell you, I won't
be playing classical.
``Do you ever go to Mass?" ``Occasionally. I'm a bit confused about it. I
don't really know where I stand these days.
``What do you like to spend money on?" ``Goodness only knows. Probably
holidays. No, probably clothes before holidays. I spend quite a bit on my little
nephew. I first kept him overnight when he was only three weeks old. It's
great to have a little child who cuddles up to you. It's gorgeous.
WHAT Fiona Coote likes to do most, she says, is laugh. I don't doubt it for
a moment. She is rather embarrassed that one of the funniest things she can
remember was when a man walked straight into a glass wall at a shopping centre.
(He wasn't hurt.) Her focus on laughter seems almost passionate.
``Some people can go through something like this and come out the other side
and, like, just not do anything. They sort of wrap themselves up in cotton
wool. They just don't do the simple things that are so much fun. They don't
help themselves. They vegetate.
Going through bypass and transplant isn't really all that much to go through
``What!" ``Really, comparatively it's not.
``Compared with what?" ``Oh, chemotherapy, something like that. I've
probably been through as much as anyone with heart transplant. Almost anyone can
go through it with the right attitude.
``It's amazing how many don't have the ability to smile. It's not that
difficult having fun. Laughing is not all that much drudgery.
I drove Fiona Coote back to the airport on a bleak wintry day. On the way
she told me a bit more about her boyfriend and we chatted about overseas
holidays. When I dropped her off at the terminal she was standing in her suede
jacket and there was rain in the air and a black sky.
But the smile she gave me as we shook hands was more than enough to brighten
the rest of my day.