Heart transplants – an overview

  • A heart transplant is an operation in which the diseased heart in a person is replaced with a healthy heart from a deceased donor.
  • Heart transplants are done as a life-saving measure when medical treatment and less drastic surgery have failed. Most heart transplants are performed on patients with end-stage heart failure.
  • Donor hearts are in short supply, so patients who need a heart transplant go through a careful selection process at a heart-transplant centre.
  • Patients who are eligible for a heart transplant are placed on a waiting list for a donor heart. Policies on distributing donor hearts are based on the urgency of need, the organs that are available for transplant, and the location of the patient who is receiving the heart. Organs are matched for blood type and size of donor and recipient.
  • Waiting times for a donor heart vary from days to several months.
  • Heart-transplant surgery usually takes about 4 hours. Patients might spend the first days after surgery in the intensive care unit of the hospital.
  • The amount of time a heart transplant recipient spends in the hospital will vary with each person. It often involves 1 to 2 weeks in the hospital and 3 months of monitoring by the transplant team at the heart-transplant centre.
  • Once home, patients must carefully check and manage their health status. Patients will work with the transplant team to protect the new heart by watching for signs of rejection, managing the transplant medicines and their side effects, preventing infections, and continuing treatment of ongoing medical conditions.
  • Risks of heart transplant include failure of the donor heart, complications from medicines, infection, cancer and problems that arise from not following lifelong health-care plans.
  • Lifelong health care includes taking multiple medicines on a strict schedule, watching for signs and symptoms of complications, keeping all medical appointments, and stopping unhealthy behaviours such as smoking.
  • Survival rates for people receiving a heart transplant have improved over the past 5–10 years—especially in the first year after the transplant. About 88% of patients survive the first year after transplant surgery.
  • After the surgery, most heart-transplant recipients (about 90%) can come close to resuming their normal daily activities.

Source: US National Institutes of Health: Heart, Lung and Blood Institute

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