- An organ transplant involves removing an organ from a donor and putting it into someone who is unwell with organ failure.
- Organs and tissues that can be transplanted include the heart, lungs, kidneys, liver, skin and parts of the eye.
- Most organs are donated after a person dies, but you can donate a kidney or part of your liver while you’re alive.
- After having a transplant, you will need to take medicines and be monitored for the rest of your life, to prevent your body rejecting your new organ.
- Anti-rejection medicines (immunosuppressants) increase your risk of infections and cancers.
What is an organ transplant?
An organ transplant involves removing an organ from a person’s body and putting it into someone who may be very ill or dying. It can save the life of the person who receives the organ.
The person who gives the organ is called the donor. The person who receives the organ is called the recipient.
Types of organ and tissue transplants
Organs that can be transplanted in Australia include the heart, kidneys, liver, lungs, intestine and pancreas.
Body tissue can also be transplanted, including heart valves, bone, tendons, ligaments, skin, parts of the eye, and bone marrow.
When is a transplant needed?
You may need an organ transplant if one of your organs is not working any more. For example, you might need:
- a heart transplant if you have heart failure
- a lung transplant if you have cystic fibrosis or emphysema
- a kidney transplant if you have kidney failure
- a liver transplant if you have liver failure
- a pancreas transplant if you have diabetes
An organ transplant is usually only considered after all other treatments have failed and your medical specialists believe you will benefit from a transplant. This is because there are not enough of organs available for transplant. Also, receiving an organ transplant carries risks and has lifelong consequences for your health.
A tissue transplant can improve your quality of life. For example:
- If you are going blind, a corneal transplant might help you see.
- If you have an injury, it might be fixed with a bone or tendon transplant.
- If you have suffered severe burns to a sensitive area of skin, it might be repaired with a skin transplant.
Bone marrow transplants
Who can donate organs and tissue?
In Australia, you can donate organs if you die in hospital with healthy organs. Your family will need to give permission for this.
If you’re healthy, you can donate a kidney or part of your liver, bone or bone marrow while you are alive. A living donor is usually a relative or close friend of the person who needs the transplant. Sometimes, people donate a kidney or tissue to someone they don’t know.
Should I have a transplant?
Whether or not you receive an organ transplant is for you and your healthcare team to decide. It is important to understand your health condition and ask your doctor about the potential benefits and risks of an organ transplant.
To learn about your choices and what may lie ahead, you might ask your healthcare team the following questions:
- How long will I need to wait for the organ transplant?
- What are the alternatives to having a transplant?
- What will happen during the procedure?
- What can I expect immediately after the transplant? What can I expect a few weeks or months after the transplant?
- How much will the transplant cost?
- What treatments will I need after the transplant?
- How long will the transplanted organ last for? What is my life expectancy with a transplant?
Impact on your emotions
An organ transplant can affect how you feel. It’s normal to experience many different emotions. You might feel stressed about possible organ rejection, or feel sad and anxious as a side effect of your medicines. You might find it difficult to adapt to your new situation.
It may help to speak with your healthcare team about how you feel following the procedure. You may also want to meet other people who have had an organ transplant.
Life after an organ transplant
Recovery from transplant surgery
After surgery, you will be in hospital for a week or longer.
Once you go home, you’ll have regular appointments to check how your transplanted organ is working. At first, you might have appointments every day. They will become less frequent as time goes on.
You will usually be advised not to drive or lift anything heavy while you’re recovering. It’s also best to avoid alcohol at first — ask your doctor when it’s safe to have a drink.
If you have had an organ transplant, you will need to take medicines and have regular medical appointments for the rest of your life. This will help you stay healthy and avoid organ rejection.
Rejection occurs when your body sees the transplanted organ as ‘foreign’ and attacks it. Anti-rejection medicines (also called immunosuppressants) control your immune system to stop this from happening. However, anti-rejection medicines can cause side effects and increase your risk of infections and some cancers. You and your healthcare team will need to work together to balance these risks.
It’s very important to take your medicines every day and never miss a dose.
To reduce your risk of infections, it’s important to:
- wash your hands frequently
- prepare and handle food safely
- avoid unpasteurised milk and undercooked meat, fish or eggs
- keep open wounds covered
- take preventative antibiotics as advised by your doctor
Maintaining a healthy lifestyle
It is also important to live a healthy lifestyle to stay well and help your transplanted organ last as long as possible. This includes:
Resources and support
If you have had an organ transplant, you can contact your healthcare team with any questions. To find out more about living with a transplant, visit Transplant Australia, which supports transplant recipients, donors and their families. They also run physical activity programs which increase survival rates in transplant recipients.
To find out more about organ or tissue donation or to register as a potential donor, visit DonateLife. Registering is easy and only takes a few minutes.
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Last reviewed: April 2023