4 Things You Need To Know About Heart Transplants

For people with advanced heart disease, heart transplantation may be the only option. This lifesaving procedure is performed about 2000 times a year in the United States. Here's what you need to know about this procedure. 

When are heart transplants performed?

Donor hearts are in short supply, so heart transplants are only performed on people with very advanced heart disease who can't be treated with other methods. In addition, cardiologists will make sure that you don't have any other conditions or habits that will make you a poor candidate for the procedure. For example, if you are an active substance abuser or a current cigarette smoker, you won't be able to get a heart transplant. People with major illnesses like cancer or HIV are also not able to get a transplant. This is because these factors make the transplant more likely to fail. 

How is a heart transplant performed?

A heart transplant is a very complicated surgery and can take as long as six hours. You will be connected to a machine that will pump and oxygenate your blood while your own heart is being replaced. An incision will be made down the center of your chest, and then the breastbone will be separated. Surgeons will remove most of your heart (except for the two upper chambers), and then they will attach your new heart. As soon as it starts pumping, you'll be taken off the life support machine and sewn up.

How long does it take to recover?

This is a major surgery, so your recovery will be long. You will need to stay in the hospital for about 10 days if you don't have any complications, and longer if you do experience complications. Once you're home, you will slowly ease back into your normal activities. Most people can go back to work 2 or 3 months after the procedure, though you won't be fully healed until 3 to 6 months have passed. 

What is your prognosis?

Survival rates have been improving in recent years thanks to the use of modern immunosuppressants. Immunosuppressants are needed to stop your immune system from recognizing your new heart as a foreign object and rejecting it.

These days, the median survival rate after the procedure is 9 years. Nearly 10% of patients will survive for 20 years after receiving a heart transplant. Doctors are working to improve these survival rates. 

Heart transplants are a life saving procedure for people with advanced heart disease. If this describes you, talk to your cardiologist about your eligibility for a heart transplant.