The transplant process

Getting a new heart is more than surgery - it's a process that begins when you and your health care team talk about transplant as a possible treatment option.

Exam before surgery

You may qualify for a heart transplant when all other treatments have been tried. To see if a transplant is right for you, your doctor will schedule a health exam that includes:

  • blood tests
  • X-rays
  • heart catheterization (a test to tell how well your heart pumps blood through your arteries)
  • tests to determine your overall state of health

During this time, you will learn about the surgery, risks and benefits, after care, and lifestyle changes you may need to make.

If you qualify, your name will be added to the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS), which matches available donors to waiting recipients. Your blood type, weight, medical urgency status, and any special tissue matching requirements are registered.

Waiting for a donor heart

The time waiting for a heart may seem quite long. It can range from several months to years. You will need to see your regular doctor and your transplant cardiologist for treatment while you wait.

During this time, you will likely be stressed about your lifestyle, work, family, and money. While keeping a positive outlook may be a challenge, this may be a time of great personal reflection and growth. The transplant team will help you. You are encouraged to meet other patients and attend support group meetings.

Where a donor heart comes from

A donor is someone who has had a severe brain injury and cannot recover. The donor has been pronounced brain dead by a doctor.

Brain death means that the brain has stopped working. With the help of a machine (respirator) to breathe, the donor's body may be able to keep some organs working. The donation of organs depends on the donor's cause of death and medical condition, and the donor family's permission.

Donors may be up to 60 years old, but the age is usually younger. LifeSource is the organ procurement agency that serves Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and part of Wisconsin.

LifeSource donor coordinators work closely with donor hospital staff to determine whether a patient meets criteria to be an organ donor and provides information to the donor family, offering the option of organ donation. Once the family gives permission for donation, the donor coordinator follows national UNOS guidelines to place organs with waiting candidates.

Organs are placed in order of medical urgency and the amount of time each patient has been waiting. The transplant center of each candidate is contacted, and donor information is reviewed with the transplant surgeon.

What you need to do when a donor heart is available

If you are at home, you will receive a phone call or a page. You will need to travel right away to Abbott Northwestern Hospital. Important: Do not eat or drink anything after you receive this call.

If you are already in the hospital, your nurse or doctor will tell you so that you can call your family.

The surgery may be canceled at any time during this process. If this happens, the transplant coordinator or doctor will talk with you and your family about what happened.

What happens if your health gets worse

If your health gets worse, you may need to stay in the hospital for treatment. The transplant team will watch you closely and keep you informed of any changes.

If you are too ill to receive a donor heart, the team will be there to support you and talk about your options for medical care.

Source: Allina Health's Patient Education Department, Care After Heart Transplant, cvs-ah-95405 (1/18)
First Published: 01/06/2013
Last Reviewed: 01/19/2018