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Heart Transplant Procedure: Everything You Need to Know

Heart Transplant Procedure: Everything You Need to Know

A heart transplant procedure ranks among the most complex and difficult medical procedures. Because of this, people who are slated for a heart transplant might have some fears or worries about what it entails.

In this article, we will discuss what the heart transplant procedure is, why is it done, how it is done, as well as the long-term prognosis and possible side effects.

What is the heart transplant procedure?

As the name suggests, a heart transplant is a medical procedure wherein a surgeon removes a person’s heart and replaces it with a donor’s heart1. It’s also possible for doctors to use an artificial heart instead of a donor heart. This usually happens when there is no donor available, and the surgery needs to be done immediately.

Doctors usually recommend this procedure for patients who have congenital heart defects. Patients who undergo a heart transplant procedure are typically at the end stage of their condition. What this means is that doctors have exhausted all other means for treatment.

However, not everyone who is at the end stage of heart disease can be eligible for a transplant. The patient’s health and condition will need to be first evaluated before a cardiologist signs off on a transplant.

If a patient is eligible, they will be put on a waiting list. When a match is found, the surgery needs to happen as soon as possible as the heart is usually viable for only 4 hours after being removed from the donor2.

The very first human-to-human heart transplant was performed in 1967, by Dr. Christiaan Barnard and his team in a hospital in South Africa. The very first patient only managed to survive 18 days after the procedure, but succeeding patients survived for longer, with some even surviving for more than 10 years.

Now, heart transplants are done all throughout the world and have saved thousands of lives since.

How is it performed?

During the heart transplant procedure, the patient will be given general anesthesia. They will also be assisted by a ventilator, which will help them breathe as the surgery is done.

The surgery starts with a cut from the middle of the chest and stops right above the belly button. Afterward, the sternum, or breastbone, will need to be broken in order to access the patient’s heart.

Next, the patient will be connected to a device called a heart-lung machine. As the name suggests, this device acts as the patient’s heart and lungs during the procedure. Once the patient has been connected to this device, the surgeon will then remove the patient’s heart.

Once the old heart is removed, the new heart is carefully sewn into place. The surgeon will also have to connect all the blood vessels carefully to ensure that there are no leaks. Once the surgeon confirms that the new heart has been successfully transplanted, the patient will be disconnected from the heart-lung machine.

The heart is then shocked with small amounts of electricity to “kickstart” the heart and start it pumping.

Afterward, the broken sternum will be repaired with wires, and the patient will be sewn back up and sent to recover from the surgery3.

How long does recovery take?

After surgery, patients can expect to stay for 2-3 weeks, depending on how soon their body recovers. Shortly after the surgery, patients might be hooked up to a ventilator to assist with their breathing.

Patients can also experience pain after the surgery, so doctors will also be prescribing pain medication.

Once the patient is out of the hospital, they will need to regularly take medication to prevent rejection of the transplanted organ. It’s also important for them to come back to the doctor for regular checkups and to see how their body is taking to the new heart4.

What are some possible complications?

It’s possible that a heart transplant can fail. The most common reason is that the body rejects the transplanted organ. This can happen even if the patient regularly takes their medication, so it’s something to consider.

What doctors can do about this is to change the patient’s medication to something that could prevent rejection. In more extreme cases, another heart transplant might be required5.

However, these cases are relatively rare, and a lot of heart transplant patients live a full and healthy life after their surgery.

Learn more about other Medical Procedures and Surgeries here.

Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

  1. Heart Transplant | American Heart Association, https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/congenital-heart-defects/care-and-treatment-for-congenital-heart-defects/heart-transplant, Accessed August 11, 2021
  2. Heart Transplant | NHLBI, NIH, https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health-topics/heart-transplant, Accessed August 11, 2021
  3. Heart Transplant | Johns Hopkins Medicine, https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/treatment-tests-and-therapies/heart-transplant, Accessed August 11, 2021
  4. Heart transplant – What happens – NHS, https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/heart-transplant/what-happens/, Accessed August 11, 2021
  5. Heart transplant – Mayo Clinic, https://www.mayoclinic.org/tests-procedures/heart-transplant/about/pac-20384750, Accessed August 11, 2021
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Written by Jan Alwyn Batara Updated Aug 12
Fact Checked by Kristel Dacumos-Lagorza