Heart transplant

Introduction

A heart transplant is an operation to replace a damaged or failing heart with a healthy human heart from a donor who has recently died.

When a heart transplant is needed

A heart transplant may be needed when a person's heart can no longer work effectively, potentially putting their life at risk.

A heart transplant is usually recommended if a person:

  • has severe heart failure – when the heart is having trouble pumping enough blood around the body
  • is expected to die within in a year without a transplant
  • has not responded to conventional treatments for heart failure (read more about the treatment of heart failure)

In a small number of cases, a heart transplant may also be performed in young children born with a serious heart defect. This is known as congenital heart disease.

However, you won't be considered if you haven't acted on your doctor's advice  to quit smoking, for example  or taken the medication prescribed for you. Also, you may not be suitable for a heart transplant if you have poor kidney function. This is because some of the medication needed following the operation has an adverse effect on the kidneys.

The operation

When you receive the call, you must go to the transplant centre immediately. The donor heart will need to be transplanted within a few hours of being removed from the donor.

During a heart transplant, a heart bypass machine will keep your blood circulating.

A cut is made in the middle of the chest. Then your own, failed heart is removed and the donor heart is connected to the main arteries. The heart should then begin beating normally.

A heart transplant normally takes between four and six hours.

Read more about getting ready for a heart transplant and how a heart transplant is performed.

Risks

A heart transplant is a complex and risky procedure.

Possible complications include:

  • failure of the transplanted heart to pump properly (primary graft dysfunction)
  • the body rejecting the donor heart

Due to advances in treatment, the risks associated with having a heart transplant have been reduced, but not eliminated.

It is estimated that around 1 in 10 people will die due to complications in the first year after surgery. Most deaths occur in the first 30 days after surgery, and after this time the chances of survival improve dramatically.

Read more about the risks associated with a heart transplant.

Recovery

It can take several months to recover from the effects of a heart transplant, and frequent follow-up appointments at the transplant centre will be needed. 

Immunosuppressant medication will also be needed to prevent the body rejecting the donated heart. Immunosuppressants are powerful medications that can have a range of different side effects, including making you more vulnerable to infection and weakened bones (osteoporosis).

Read more about recovering from a heart transplant.

How common are heart transplants?

Heart transplants are rarely performed in the UK, mainly due to a lack of suitable donors.

There were 197 heart transplants performed in the UK between 2012 and 2013.

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