Heart transplant

Introduction

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

When a heart transplant is needed

When the heart can no longer work efficiently and a person’s life is potentially at risk, a heart transplant may be needed.

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, and
  • is expected to die within in a year without a transplant, and
  • 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 known as congenital heart disease).

However, you won't be considered if you have not complied with advice or been unreliable. For example, you haven't given up smoking or taken prescribed medicine. 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 affect on the kidneys.

The operation

When you receive the call, you must get to the transplant centre immediately. The donor heart will need to be transplanted within four 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 abdomen, the damaged 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 three and five 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 rejects the donor heart

Due to advancements in treatment the risks associated with having a heart transplant have been reduced but not eliminated. It is estimated 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 131 heart transplants performed during 2010/11 in the UK.

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