A heart transplant is suitable for only a few people with certain kinds of heart disease. It is a complex procedure that requires a skilled, experienced surgical team and a highly motivated recipient. In most cases a heart transplant is recommended only when there is no other hope of survival and the possibility of the operation’s success is high.
The best candidate for a heart transplant is a person under 60 who, except for his or her heart, is otherwise healthy and whose liver, lungs and kidneys are strong. A supportive family or group of friends is also very helpful.
Most often, the donor heart comes from a healthy person who died in an accident. The donor heart is rushed to the hospital, the recipient’s chest is opened, the diseased heart is removed, and the donor heart is put in its place. During the operation, a heart-lung machine takes over for the recipient’s heart. Most successful recipients recover and go on to live relatively normal lives. Approximately 80 percent are alive a year after the procedure, and some have lived for more than a decade.
Aside from the hazards of open-heart surgery, the greatest obstacle to healing is the body’s own immune system response. To the immune system, the new heart is an intruder, and the body will ordinarily reject the heart unless drugs are administered to suppress the immune system. Skillful dosage adjustment is crucial, since a suppressed immune system renders the patient susceptible to infection. The patient will need to take reduced dosages of these medicines for the rest of his or her life.
To learn more about heart transplants, ask your healthcare provider. It is not for everyone, but heart transplants have helped many people extend their lives.