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What is a Cardiac Transplant?

By Jacob Queen
Updated May 17, 2024
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A cardiac transplant is an operation to replace a person’s heart with another heart from a donor. The donor is a person who has died, but her body is kept alive with machines until the operation can be performed. Cardiac transplant operations are performed on people with many different kinds of heart disease and heart failure. The operation is very serious, and there is a significant waiting list for donors, but the procedure is often quite effective in terms of prolonging a person’s life.

When performing a cardiac transplant, doctors open the person’s chest up and set up the blood vessels so that they are running through machines. The operation can take many hours, and patients may spend a significant portion of that time without a heart in their bodies, so the machines are needed to keep the blood flowing normally. The heart is removed, and the donor heart is surgically implanted, which involves properly re-attaching all the blood vessels.

Cardiac transplant operations are designated for people with hearts that are about to fail completely. In most cases, this is one of the last options doctors turn to in a case of heart disease. It is very important that the patient be at the right stage of heart disease. For example, if the person is in the early stages, someone else may need the donor heart more.

There are generally a lot of considerations when it comes to choosing the right recipients for heart transplants. Beyond the aforementioned importance of the stage of the heart disease, it is also important that the patient be well enough overall to handle the transplant. If a person is in bad enough health from some other condition, his or her body may not be able to survive the stresses of a cardiac transplant. Since donor hearts are generally limited, doctors are usually careful to make sure that only the best candidates get transplants.

The main concern during a cardiac transplant is avoiding organ rejection. This is a common problem in most organ donor situations, and doctors do a lot of testing to make sure the donor and the patient are potentially compatible. After the surgery, the patient will generally have to take drugs to weaken the immune system so that it doesn’t attack the donor heart. This can present additional health problems because the people may be more vulnerable to many kinds of infections.

Cardiac transplant operations can work very well for some patients. Many people may survive more than 10 years with a donor heart, depending on their level of overall health and how well they follow recovery guidelines. Avoiding rejection of the heart is generally a lifelong process, and the person will always have to take precautions and use certain medications for this reason.

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