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Fiona Coote celebrates life 30 years since her first heart transplant

April 4, 2014 Rachel Browne Social Affairs Reporter

When Fiona Coote had a heart failure in 1984, a transplant was the only option. Three decades later, one of the surgeons who operated on the teenager believes heart transplants will soon be a thing of the past.

The director of heart-lung surgery and transplantation at St Vincent’s Hospital, Phillip Spratt, says technological advances in artificial heart pumps will make transplant surgery redundant.

Almost 40 per cent of patients at the hospital’s heart-lung transplant unit have the devices implanted, which keep them alive for years, in some cases until they undergo surgery.

Post transplant: Ms Coote after her operation in 1984. Photo: Supplied

”No transplant program will ever be able to treat all the people who are suffering or in ill-health,” Associate Professor Spratt says.

”The real hope is that we put these pumps into patients as a final form of therapy, not just to keep them alive until they undergo transplantation.”

Known as a continuous flow pump, the device is a small spinning rotor suspended between two magnetic fields. It sucks the blood into the heart and then pumps it out.

The newer pumps are about the size of a 50¢ piece and have a small electric cord that runs out of the patient’s abdomen and connects with a battery pack worn under their clothes.

As the pumps do not cause the heart to beat, patients have no pulse.

”That’s very radical technology and if you’d said that to a surgeon 30 years ago, they would have found it very hard to believe,” Associate Professor Spratt says.

The hospital’s transplant unit has performed more than 870 heart, 763 lung and 84 combined heart-lung transplants over the past 30 years.

Ms Coote, 44, is the best known and longest surviving patient. Now living in Hobart and working as a fund-raiser for mental health charity beyondblue, she describes the past 30 years as a gift.

”It’s brilliant, not only for me but for the hospital,” she says. ”They never expected a result like this and neither did I.”

Faced with heart failure resulting from complications brought about by viral-induced tonsillitis, Ms Coote underwent her first transplant on April 8, 1984. After her body rejected the first heart, she went in for a second transplant in 1986.

”I am remarkably well but I really do look after myself,” Ms Coote says. ”I value my health and I enjoy life.”

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