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Heart transplants

4-minute read

A heart transplant is an operation to replace a damaged or diseased heart with a healthy donor heart. A transplant may be needed when your heart can no longer work well and cannot be treated in any other way. This article contains general information about heart transplants.

Considering a heart transplant

If you have serious (end-stage) heart failure and other treatments will not work, you may require a heart transplant. Your healthcare team will assess whether you are suitable for a transplant.

The final decision may also depend on whether you are willing to undergo the surgery itself and to take responsibility for the self-care required once the operation is completed.

To decide whether to have a heart transplant, it is important to understand your condition and the potential benefits and risks of the transplant. Read more here about questions to ask your healthcare team.

Who can donate a heart?

The donor for a heart transplant is usually someone who is brain dead. This person may have previously registered their decision to donate their organs or their family has decided to donate their organs. To read more about organ or tissue donation or to register as a donor, visit www.donatelife.org.au.

The waiting list for transplants

If you are suitable for a heart transplant and you choose to have one, your name will be put on a waiting list. This is because there are usually not enough donor hearts for the number of people who need a transplant at any one time.

When a donor heart becomes available, it is matched to potential recipients by blood group, size and urgency. You need to be contactable in case a suitable donor heart becomes available.

What happens in a heart transplant?

Once a donor heart becomes available for you, things can happen very quickly. You will probably be called to go to the hospital. You may be asked to fast in preparation for surgery.

A heart transplant operation, during which the surgeon will remove your heart and replace it with the donor heart, usually takes between 4 and 6 hours.

After the surgery, you will probably need to stay in the hospital for a few weeks to recover.

Once you have been discharged, it is important that you attend all of your medical appointments and follow any recommended exercise and education programs. This is known as cardiac rehabilitation.

Life after a heart transplant

Even after you have fully recovered from the surgery, you will likely still need to have regular check-ups. You will probably need to take medicine for the rest of your life to prevent your body from rejecting the new heart. Since the medication weakens your immune system, you should try to avoid infections by:

  • avoiding people who you know are sick (e.g. with the flu or chickenpox)
  • washing your hands well before eating
  • covering any cuts or wounds

Your healthcare team will probably talk to you about your treatment plan, how to monitor your health, and about caring for yourself.

Possible complications include your body’s rejection of the new heart, infections, and side effects of medication. You will probably need to have heart biopsies for a few months to check for any signs of rejection since rejection may not produce any symptoms.

You will need to continue taking your medication as prescribed. Also, follow your healthcare team’s advice on living a healthy lifestyle, including getting enough physical activity and eating healthily.

You can reduce your risk of heart disease and prevent high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes by adopting a healthy lifestyle.

Most people can return to work or normal activities and have good quality of life after a heart transplant.

How family and friends can help

Being on the waiting list for a donor heart, undergoing the transplant operation itself, and getting used to life after a transplant can be stressful. However, family and friends can help in several ways, including:

  • supporting you emotionally
  • reminding you about taking your medications
  • driving you to your appointments

Last reviewed: September 2017

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