Heart transplant

S Asian gran mum girl embracingA heart transplant is when a diseased heart is replaced by a healthy human heart from a donor. 

Because there are not enough suitable and available donor hearts, not everyone who could benefit from a transplant can have one.

Last year, there were 145 heart and 3 heart and lung transplants at seven hospitals around the UK.

Who might need a heart transplant?

A heart transplant may be considered if you have severe heart failure. If your condition is serious and other treatments are not managing to improve things or control your symptoms, your cardiologist may send you to a heart transplant centre for a transplant assessment. 

How do I know if I'm eligible for a heart transplant?

Your assessment will determine whether you need a transplant and whether you are suitable for one. Based on your assessment, you may be considered:

  • suitable for a transplant, in which case you will be put onto the transplant waiting list. This means you could be called for a transplant at any time.
  • suitable for a transplant, but the consultants do not think your condition is severe enough to warrant being put on the waiting list. If this happens your case will be reviewed regularly. If your condition gets worse, you will go on the waiting list.
  • in need of further investigations or treatment. If your condition changes you can be assessed again.
  • an unsuitable case for a heart transplant. This could be for a number of reasons and the transplant team will explain why you are not suitable and discuss how you can be treated further. You can also be referred to another centre for a second opinion.

How long is the wait for a heart transplant?

If you are considered suitable for a heart transplant you will be added to the transplant waiting list. Once you are on the list, a suitable heart may come along within a few days or it may take many months or even years.

Unfortunately, suitable hearts do not become available for everyone and only 8 out of 10 people receive the heart transplant they require. In the UK, adults and children can wait over a year for a transplant.

What happens during a heart transplant operation?

organ donationIt’s natural for you to feel excited, emotional or anxious about your surgery and life afterwards.

Remember that a transplanted heart is no more than a new pump - it does not change your personality or behaviours.

A heart transplant operation usually takes between four and six hours:

  1. At the start of the procedure you’ll be given a general anesthetic.
  2. The surgeon will make a cut in your breastbone to get access to your heart.You will be connected to a heart-lung bypass machine which makes the blood circulate around your body.
  3. Your surgeon will then work on transplanting your new heart.
  4. When this is finished, they will start your heart beating again. When you heart begins to take over pumping and your condition is stable, the heart-lung machine will be turned off. 
  5. The surgeon will then close your breastbone with wire, which will stay there for the rest of your life.

After the operation you will be moved to the intensive care unit. Most people wake the following day. You will be sedated and breathe with the help of a ventilator machine until you are able to breathe for yourself.

If you have any questions or if anything is worrying you, you can talk to your transplant team, the Transplant Support Network or call our Heart Helpline on 0300 330 3311.

What happens after the transplant?

Most people leave hospital within about four weeks after the operation, but depending on your condition, you may need to stay in hospital for longer.

In the first few months after your surgery you will need to spend a lot of time visiting the hospital – you might even need to stay near the transplant centre. Your transplant team will talk to you about practical arrangements for after your surgery.

Although you will be weak after the operation, recovery can be very quick. It is important to build up your level of activity gradually. You should avoid activities involving lifting and pushing until your breastbone is fully healed, which can take up to three or four months.

Once you feel fit and able, you can start doing things like light vacuuming or light gardening.

What is life like after a heart transplant?

Elderly couple at homeOnce you’ve recovered from surgery you should be able to return to a wide range of activities including driving, holidays and physical activity - some people are even able to go back to work. 

You will need to take a number of medicines, including immunosuppressants, for the rest of your life.  Without them your body would rapidly recognise your new heart as ‘foreign’ and try to reject it.  This type of medicine can have side-effects which your doctor will discuss with you.

Many people who have had a successful heart transplant go on to live long and healthy lives.  Over three-quarters of heart transplant patients live for over five years. 

Where can I find out more?

  • Our heart transplantation booklet talks in detail about heart transplantation and is for people who have had, or are waiting for a heart transplant, and their family and friends.
  • The Transplant Support Network (TSN) are a nationwide network of volunteer transplant patients and their carers, who provide support and information for others coping with transplants
  • The NHS Blood and Transplant special health authority within the NHS provides support to transplantation services across the UK and makes sure that donated organs are matched and used in a fair way. They also provide information and statistics on heart and other transplants.

Do you want to help find donor hearts?

Did you know that on average, three people die every day in the UK whilst waiting for an organ transplant? That’s 1,000 people a year, dying due to a shortage of donor organs. 9 out of 10 people say they support organ donation but only 3 in 10 actually go on to sign the register.
You can help by signing up to the NHS Organ Donation Register, and spread the word to your family and friends. This is a register for anyone who wants to donate their heart or other organs.

You can help by signing up to the NHS Organ Donation Register, and spreading the word to your family and friends. This is a register for anyone who wants to donate their heart or other organs.