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What Does a Heart Transplant Involve?

By: Jeff Durham - Updated: 19 Sep 2012 | comments*Discuss
Heart Transplant Heart Transplant

A heart transplant is the procedure that could be recommended if a person’s heart has deteriorated to such an extent that they would die without the operation and their heart has failed to respond to any of the other therapies that have already been tried.

However, for a transplant to be considered, a person would generally have to otherwise be in good health. They will also have had to go through a series of discussions with the surgical team prior to being selected for a heart transplant to determine whether or not they’d be a suitable candidate for transplantation.

There will be many further lifestyle changes post surgery which a donor would need to adhere to, including further frequent examinations and being able to manage a complex set of drug treatments.

The Operation

The transplant itself is carried out under general anaesthetic and the patient is put on a heart-lung machine which is able to keep their body supplied with oxygen and other nutrients from the blood whilst the heart is being operated on. The surgeon then removes the heart except for the back walls of the atria.

They will then open up the back walls of the atria on the new heart and sew the new heart into place at which point they’ll connect up the blood vessels to enable the blood to flow through the patient’s heart and lungs. All the connected vessels and heart chambers will then be checked for leaks and once no leakage can be confirmed, the incision will be closed and the patient can come off the heart-lung machine.

Although there are specialist surgeons around who are used to performing this kind of procedure on a regular basis, it is a complex operation, which can take between 4 to 10 hours to carry out.


The major risk associated with any kind of transplant surgery is that the patient may reject the transplanted heart. However, if there have been no complications, a patient is often able to get up and walk about within a few days post surgery and they can usually go home within a week to a fortnight if they are showing no signs of rejecting their new heart.

In the long-term, the prognosis for heart transplant patients is pretty good providing that they stick to a strict regime with their medications and follow the advice of their surgeon. There will be several medications to take daily and these will need to be taken for life, mainly to counteract rejection.

With these medications, there come several risks of incurring side effects which can include high blood pressure, fluid retention, osteoporosis and possible kidney damage which is why additional medication is often prescribed to combat these kinds of potential problems.

Exercise and diet also play an extremely important role in the patient’s life expectancy after an operation. Regular exercise will improve the functioning capacity of the new heart and it’s also important to maintain a healthy weight and eat a low-sodium and low fat diet to reduce the risk of incurring further problems caused by high blood pressure and further heart disease.

There are so many variables that it is impossible to predict how long a person will live following a heart transplant. Their age at the time of operation, overall general health and how their body responds to the transplant will all be factors that will help to determine both the length of life after transplant and the level of activities they will be able to carry out.

Many people have gone back to work and/or been able to completely resume all of their usual sporting and other physical activities, the key being to follow the advice of your surgeon in terms of how you adapt to your new lifestyle after receiving a heart transplant.

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