How 7-year old Zaidee Turner saved numerous lives and inspired Australia to speak about organ and tissue donation

Zaidee Turner, a 7-year old from Shepparton, Victoria, is the youngest organ and tissue donor in Australia’s history. Now more than a decade later she has the nation talking about the life-saving qualities of transplants through Zaidee’s Rainbow Foundation.

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Zaidee Turner. Photo credit: Zaidee’s Rainbow Foundation

To understand her story we have to go back to 2004 when she was 7-years old.

One night she was screaming out the corridor complaining of a pain in her head and collapsed unconscious.

Zaidee was taken to the emergency department in the early morning. At this point she was still unconscious.

The doctors discovered from an MRI scan that she had a large bleed in her brain known as a cerebral aneurysm.

“They then flew Zaidee from Shepparton to Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne for emergency brain surgery but unfortunately there was nothing they could do,” said her dad Allan.

“My wife turned around in the hospital and said by the way we’re an organ donor family.

As per Zaidee’s and the family’s wishes she donated her organs and tissues.

At the age of 7 years and 22 days Zaidee donated both corneas to two 4-year old children, kidneys to a middleaged mum, a liver to an 8-year old girl, two heart patches to two infant children and a heart valve to a new born baby.

After we got back the phone rang and it was The Royal Children’s Hospital and they said by the way Zaidee is the only child in the State of Victoria that is an organ and tissue donor under the age of 16,” said Allan.

“I guess that’s what inspired us to setup the Zaidee’s Rainbow Foundation to promote organ and tissue donation on a fairly grand scale because nothing else was being done at the time.”

Since 2004, the foundation has become the largest campaign and the most proactive charity for organ and tissue donation in Australia’s history.

Zaidee’s older brother Jazz was only nine at the time when his sister died. 

“When we got down there I think he was stunned that he saw his little sister, his best friend hooked up to a wall full of machinery, not moving, not doing anything and then to tell him we’re not gonna bring her home haunts him I think to this day” said Allan.

Jazz is now 23-years of age. He still doesn’t get into conversation about what happened to his sister.

Before she died Zaidee said to her mum:

“If anything happened to me I think I want to donate my organs and tissues to other kids if I die.”

Kim wrote down Zaidee’s request in her journal and didn’t think twice. It was only seven months later that she died.

“Now it will be 14 years in December since she died. Now I’m the most vocal, high profile voice in the country about what organ and tissue donation is all about,” said Allan.

Zaidee’s death and the foundation changed Allan’s perspective on life.

Prior to her death Allan was as he stated “very non charity and non-community committed.”

“When Zaidee died my whole expectation of life changed ’cause you lose the greatest thing that you own, it changes your thought and what life’s all about.”

Allan now jumps at the opportunity to donate to charities because, “I can see the value of what charities do.”

“I don’t care about scratches on my car anymore because it’s only a scratch and you can fix that. I can’t bring my daughter back.”

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Zaidee Turner. Photo credit: Zaidee’s Rainbow Foundation

In the first 12 months after Zaidee’s death the family were still grieving whilst speaking with the media.

After 12 months the family changed the perspective that they were no longer the grieving family. The story the told was not about grief but the promotion of organ and tissue donation to inspire discussion in honour of Zaidee’s memory and legacy.

In 2015 Zaidee’s Rainbow Foundation established a powerful campaign about changing the current system in Australia from opt-in to opt-out.

Countries such as Spain and Belgium have an opt-out policy meaning that citizens are presumed to consent to being organ donors unless they opt-out.

“You look at the world’s leading countries such as Spain, such as Belgium and say what have they done that we could do here and what is the benefit of opt-out.”

Approximately 6 million Australians are registered as organ and tissue donors. Whilst Australia is a world leader in successful transplants, the country has one of the lowest donation rates in the developed world. This places us at 13.8 donors per million population and a world ranking of 13. According to Transplant Australia, there are 1,600 people awaiting a life-saving transplant.  One donor can save up to 10 lives. 

A 2008 report from The Economist indicated that demand has been increasing due to an ageing and obese population. In Australia, a person can register as a donor however, according to medical ethics, the family has the final say.

Organ donation can be quite a complex topic, but it does not have to be. The foundation have been successful in communicating concepts regarding human anatomy, physiology and health policy to primary school students.

Organ donation can be quite a complex topic, but it does not have to be. The foundation have been successful in communicating concepts regarding human anatomy, physiology and health policy to primary school students.

“I’ve been doing primary school presentations really since 2005 where I’ve gone in talking to students about Zaidee’s Story. I ask every child to put their hand on their heart and children know where their heart is. I then ask them to put their hand on their lungs, and they’re always like “ah?” And then, “quite right. Put your hands on your kidneys!” And everybody looks at each other. No one knows where their kidneys are.”

“Then I get out a CD cover with a CD in it. And I say, What happens if I started scratching the CD? And they’ll laugh and giggle and go, “oh no, don’t do that! You’re gonna wreck the CD!”

That is just like what the cornea is like – a CD cover for the eye. The students understand what organs and tissues are.

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Model: Celia López. Photo credit: Jose Ros Photo.

Allan then explains to the students what Zaidee did when she died. He uses the analogy of repairing a tractor since most of the students around Shepparton have a dad who owns one.

The students would say, “Car’s always in the mechanic, or the tractor’s always not working, it’s always dead because they don’t have a part on the shelf!”

Allan confirmed their understanding by saying, “It’s a bit like when you go in a hospital, and you need a heart or a kidney or something, they don’t have those parts on a shelf. So you’ve gotta wait and wait and wait until something happens.”

This year the school educational programme will include a lifesized artificial torso to further illustrate human anatomy.

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Zaidee’s rainbow shoelaces. Photo credit: Zaidee’s Rainbow Foundation

Zaidee’s story became the inspiration for the recent documentary “Dying to Live” which premiered at the Sydney Film Festival. This month the documentary will be showing at the Melbourne International Film Festival.

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Allan Turner, CEO. Photo credit: Zaidee’s Rainbow Foundation

It all came about when director Richard Todd, was sitting watching television and saw Allan speaking to with Lisa Wilkinson on Channel 9. Richar then thought, “That’s my next documentary.” He rang me up two hours later and said, “Look, I’ve been inspired about this. Let’s do a doco on organ and tissue donation.”

The film follows the journey of people waiting for a transplant, what they do, and how they live their life.

“It’s important, one, because it’s an hour and a half and you’re sitting in a picture theatre imagining yourself in that situation,” said Alan, “And then imagine yourself what you could do to give life to these people at the end of yours. It’s a pretty powerful doco!”

The foundation have high profiled ambassadors who spread the message of the foundation.

Tom Lonergan, former Geelong football player, had the foundations’ laces on when he was playing because he lost a kidney during his career. People grew interest in his laces which encouraged more people to speak about organ donation.

Aaron Finch, Australian Cricket player, also had laces in his shoes and wears the rainbow cricket grip.

“These sporting people have been terrific to really engage the public and especially the children who ask mum and dad what’s Finch got that rainbow cricket grip on for and now we’ve got lots of other players out there using the Rainbow cricket grip that Finch was one of the anchors behind that” said Allan.

Kidney transplants demand three quarters of the organs so kidney and thus the most high demand organ for transplantation.

Whilst there is research into stem cells to produce organs and tissues, it

I asked Allan what he would tell her if he could speak to his daughter. This is what he said:

“If it wasn’t for you Zaidee, we wouldn’t have two million pairs of Rainbow Shoelaces in the community being promoted and thatmessages, two million messages of shoelaces. I would be telling her that if it wasn’t for you I wouldn’t get to meet all these sporting people around the country, all these well known politicians, I wouldn’t travel, I wouldn’t be doing this, I wouldn’t be doing that, people wouldn’t be talking about organ and tissue donation if you didn’t die. If it wasn’t for your memory, your story, we wouldn’t engage the community nationally to get behind a campaign that I would never have got behind if it wasn’t for you.“

He also went on to say:

“If it wasn’t for you Zaidee, seven people wouldn’t be living life to the max. A new born baby wouldn’t have gone home with their parents that night if it wasn’t for you. A mum wouldn’t have grown up with a six year old son if it wasn’t for you. I think you can go on about what we would be telling her.”

Zaidee provided so many blessings through the donations she gave to people which became the inspiration for Zaidee’s Rainbow Foundation..

Tweet: “I’d love to see that Zaidee’s memory is the instigator and the reason why we would change to the opt-out system” – Allan Turner, CEO of @ZaideesRainbow @jayredt.

Afterthoughts

I asked Allan to provide three call to actions which are:

1. Have the conversation in the family unit and understand the wishes of the family, whether that be a yes or whether that be a no.

2. Inspire politicians to look at the system and think of lives you could save by changing the system. Not only the opt-out system but other factors in the hospital system.

3. School education to really motivate schools to get this as part of their agenda, as part of the curriculum

Donate

Make a donation on the foundation’s website.

Purchase apparel from the Zaidee’s Rainbow Foundation online store.

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