A heart transplant is an operation in which the diseased heart in a person is replaced with a healthy heart from a deceased donor. Transplants are done as a life-saving measure for end-stage heart failure when medical treatment and less drastic surgery have failed. Because donor hearts are in short supply, patients who need a heart transplant go through a careful selection process. They need to be sick enough to need a new heart, yet healthy enough to receive it.
Most patients referred to a heart transplant center have end-stage heart failure. Of these patients, close to half have heart failure as a result of coronary artery disease. Others have heart failure caused by hereditary conditions, viral infections of the heart, or damaged heart valves and muscles due to factors such as the use of certain medicines and alcohol, and pregnancy.
Most patients considered for a heart transplant have exhausted attempts at less invasive treatments and have been hospitalized a number of times for heart failure. 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. Other important notes Heart transplant surgery usually takes about 4 hours.
The amount of time a heart transplant recipient spends in the hospital will vary with each person.
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 behaviors 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 percent of patients survive the first year after transplant surgery.
After the surgery, most heart transplant recipients (about 90 percent) can come close to resuming their normal daily activities.
Source: "Heart and Vascular Diseases." Disease and Conditions Index. The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. The National Institutes of Health.