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Sunday Age

Hearts come up trumphs

Author: Doug Aiton
Date: 26/06/1993
Words: 2303
          Publication: THE SUNDAY AGE
Section: Agenda
Page: 5
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 Starlight Foundation.

``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 bed-ridden.

``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 handbag.

``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 really terrified.

``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 live.

``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 from Manilla.

``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.

They fret.

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 reluctant smile.

``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 there.

``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.

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