Last week, British Columbia marked a major medical milestone when transplant recipients, their families and healthcare workers gathered together to celebrate the 500th heart transplant in the Province. Individuals have been receiving heart transplants as early as the 1970s, though they were not available to British Columbians until 1988. While heart transplants are considered to be risky operations, both medical science and technology have come a long way since the 70s and 80s, and heart transplant survival rates are now as high as 85%, with recipients living for as long as 30 years – sometimes even longer – following the intricate procedure.
A heart transplant is the surgical removal of a failing or diseased heart (or other heart-related hardware, such as pacemakers) that is replaced by a donor heart. An individual will require a heart transplant when they have end-stage heart failure, which can result from things like coronary artery disease, untreated hypertension, inherited heart disease, congenital heart disease, heart valve issues, viral infections, alcohol and drug abuse, and other unknown reasons.
That being said, heart transplants aren’t suitable for everyone. If it’s suspected that you are in need of a heart transplant, you will be referred to a specialist. Each potential transplant patient must be carefully assessed by that specialist and their team before a final decision is made and it is deemed whether or not you quality for this type of procedure and/or if it would benefit your health (or pose more risks.) Certain things that may interfere with your eligibility for a heart transplant include age, certain underlying medical conditions, whether or not you have an active infection, have a medical history of cancer, or are unwilling to make lifestyle changes in order to keep your donor heart healthy (i.e. eating healthy, exercise, quitting smoking, avoiding alcohol.) Those responsible for determining whether or not you are eligible for a heart transplant will take a very comprehensive profile of not just your medical history, but your family’s medical history as well. During this assessment process you will be able to consult with medical professionals such as a cardiologist, the transplant surgeon, as well as social workers and psychologists, and even dietitians.
Heart transplant surgery lasts for approximately 4 hours, though the length of your procedure may vary depending on how straightforward or complicated it is, as each individual’s case is different. Following the procedure, you can expect to remain in-hospital for anywhere from 10 to 14 days (2 weeks) so that you and your new heart can be closely monitored for any signs of rejection or infection. As a preventative measure, you will take different medications to protect against rejection and infection from occurring. Rejection occurs when your body thinks of the donor heart as a foreign object and tries to attack it. If it is suspected that your body is rejecting the donor heart, you may undergo several biopsies to test the heart tissue. Along with rejection and infection, heart transplant surgery also comes with other complications such as bleeding, blood clots, heart attack, stroke, and even death. If you are feeling unwell following your procedure, it’s important that you let your team of healthcare professionals know right away so that appropriate steps can be taken and tests conducted to determine if your symptoms are at all related to your transplant.