What is an Organ Transplant?

Mary McMahon

An organ transplant is a surgical procedure in which a healthy organ is implanted to replace an organ which is failing or damaged beyond repair. In addition to major organs such as lungs, kidneys, livers, and hearts, doctors can also transplant bone, tendons, skin, and various other tissues. Organ transplantation is an achievement of 20th century medicine which is constantly being refined, and for many patients who receive transplants, the transplant is the difference between life and death.

The human liver is one organ that can have a section harvested from a living person.
The human liver is one organ that can have a section harvested from a living person.

There are a number of reasons for a patient to require an organ transplant. Trauma, disease, and birth defects are three common causes. The need for transplant is usually identified after other treatments have proved ineffective, with doctors only recommending transplant when it is clearly necessary. The process involved in an organ transplant is very involved, and the recovery time can be lengthy, including permanent lifestyle changes, so it is not something to be taken lightly.

Organs for transplant are taken from cadavers and living donors.
Organs for transplant are taken from cadavers and living donors.

In many nations, patients who need organs are entered on a central database of people needing organ transplants. The patient's information is included in the database to make it easy to identify a match, and he or she is ranked on the list by medical necessity. The time spent waiting on the list is generally not a consideration, as someone may need an organ urgently, in which case he or she should not be behind someone who can survive for a few more months or years without a new organ.

Organs for transplant can be taken from two sources: cadavers and living donors. Historically, cadavers were the primary source of organs for transplant, and the rise of transplant procedures also led to refinements in the definition of “death” in the medical community. Organs can be taken, for example, from a beating heart cadaver, which means that the donor's heart is still beating, but his or her brain is dead, when previously people believed that death only occurred when the heart stopped. Living donors can donate things like kidneys, parts of the liver, skin grafts, and bone grafts, with living donors typically giving organs to friends or family members.

Before an organ transplant can take place, the recipient has to take drugs which suppress the immune system, reducing the risk that the organ will be rejected. These drugs have to be taken for life, as the immune system can turn on the organ at any time. In the procedure itself, depending on the situation, the original organ may be removed or left in. Recovery time from an organ transplant varies, with many people staying in the hospital for at least a week and sometimes longer after the transplant so that their medical teams can ensure that complications like rejection and infection have not set in.

After transplant, in addition to taking immunosuppressive drugs, patients may need to adjust their diet or lifestyle to accommodate the new organ, especially in the first year after transplant. The goal is to recover slowly and steadily, and not to push the organ too early. For example, someone who receives a heart transplant would not be out running around the track a week after the surgery.

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