Organ donor gives Zoe new lease on life

Living Well | Words: Kathryn Kernohan | Photos: Eamon Gallagher | Posted on 05 June 2018

An Australian-first transplant has given nine-year-old Zoe Brookes her future back, thanks to an organ donor.

Zoe Brookes seems like any other nine-year-old girl who loves playing netball, riding her bike and having sleepovers. But several years ago her chances of reaching this age were slim. 

“Zoe wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for the generosity of a selfless organ donor and their family,” says DonateLife Victoria State Medical Director Dr Rohit D’Costa. 

At age four Zoe fell extremely ill. “She had a few episodes where she had chest pains and couldn’t breathe. She went to emergency and was diagnosed with pulmonary arterial hypertension,” says dad Anthony. 

The rare condition results in high blood pressure that affects arteries in the lungs and heart. Anthony and Zoe’s mum Bernie remained by her bedside as she spent weeks on end in hospital. 

A heart and lung transplant was recommended, but The Alfred had never performed a similar transplant on anybody less than 30 kilograms. At the time Zoe weighed just 12 kilograms.

We were told her chances of survival were so low but she kept jumping hurdles.
Zoe Brookes and family on a pier

Zoe Brookes and family.

“We were able to get her weight up a bit, The Alfred assessed her and said they could do the transplant,” says Bernie.

“We were told her chances of survival were so low but she kept jumping hurdles, she absolutely earned her shot to get a transplant,” adds Anthony. 

According to DonateLife, which works to improve organ and tissue donation and transplantation outcomes, there are about 1400 Australians currently on transplant waiting lists and a further 12,000 on dialysis.

Zoe’s chance arrived after five months on the waiting list. “The transplant coordinator said, ‘we’ve got the heart and lungs, come in now’,” recalls Anthony.

The next week she was kicking the footy in the ward with her dad.
Mother and daughter hugging
Girl holding parents' hands

Zoe spent three hours in theatre where she became the first Australian paediatric heart and double lung recipient.

“The next week she was kicking the footy in the ward with her dad and on day 10 she was riding a bike,” says Bernie. 

Zoe was not only able to survive her illness, but thrive. In September, she will participate in a three-kilometre bike ride as part of the Australian Transplant Games on the Gold Coast.

Dr D’Costa says most Victorians support organ donation, but only 20 per cent have registered on the Australian Organ Donor Register. “We know that nine in 10 families say yes to donation when their loved one was registered. We encourage everyone to discuss organ donation with their loved ones and register.”

The facts

  • Victoria leads the nation for organ donation, with 148 donors in 2017 saving the lives of 389 recipients
  • According to research, 66 per cent of Victorians are willing to donate organs and tissue, but only 20 per cent have registered their decision
  • It takes less than a minute to register on the Australian Organ Donor Register by mobile phone, tablet or computer at
  • If you’ve already registered your decision via your Victorian driver’s licence, you should check it has been recorded on the national register