According to the American Heart Association (www.americanheart.org), 2,163 heart transplants were performed in the U.S. in 2008, but thousands more people could have benefited from a heart transplant if more donated hearts were available.

Heart transplants are surgeries in which a patient whose heart can no longer support them receives a healthy replacement heart from a donor who has an irreversible brain injury, but whose heart is still viable. Heart transplant patients are at risk of dying because their hearts have suffered irreparable damage, usually from conditions such as heart disease, heart valve disease, coronary artery disease, a congenital heart defect, viral infection, abnormal heart beats or rhythms, or multiple heart attacks. Other treatments are no longer effective in keeping their hearts functioning properly.

Preparation for Surgery

Your doctor will refer you to a transplant center where a transplant team will evaluate you to make sure you're an appropriate candidate for a heart transplant. Your evaluation may include blood, skin, heart, tissue and cancer tests, and x-rays. You'll be placed on a national heart transplant waiting list if the team finds you're a good candidate.

During the surgery:

  • You'll receive general anesthesia.

  • The surgeon makes a cut through your breast bone.

  • Your blood circulates through a heart-lung bypass machine.

  • The surgeon removes your diseased heart and stitches the donor heart in its place.

  • The heart-lung machine is disconnected and your blood now flows through the transplanted heart.

  • The team may insert tubes to drain air, fluid, and blood out of your chest for several days to allow your lungs to re-expand fully.

Recovery Expectations

According to Medline Plus (www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/003003.htm), hospital stays usually last 7 to 21 days and for the first 24 to 48 hours you'll remain in the intensive care unit. Recovery takes approximately 6 months. You'll need regular check-ups, blood tests and x-rays for many years after surgery.

Your body will automatically try to reject the new heart because the immune system treats the transplanted heart like an infection. Therefore, you'll have to take drugs that suppress your body's immune response, and you'll need monthly heart muscle biopsies during the first 6 to 12 months after transplant. These biopsies help your doctor determine whether or not your body is rejecting the new heart.

Medline Plus notes that approximately 80 percent of heart transplant patients are still alive 2 years following their operation.