Heart Transplant Surgery

Exceptional Care and Advanced Surgical Techniques for Heart Transplant

Loyola Medicine is nationally recognized for its superior heart transplant program. Performing one of the largest volumes of heart transplants in the state of Illinois, Loyola’s patients are cared for by one of the most experienced and successful multidisciplinary heart transplant teams in the area, including cardiologists, surgeons, LVAD nurse coordinators, heart failure nurse coordinators, nurse practitioners, physical therapists, pharmacists, social workers, psychologists, dietitians and financial counselors.

Heart transplant surgery, also called cardiac transplant or heart transplantation, removes a damaged or diseased heart and replaces it with a healthy donor heart. Qualifying for a heart transplant is an extensive process and includes a detailed evaluation, search for a donor heart, the transplant surgery and a recovery period.

Heart transplant surgery may be a life-saving treatment for individuals with end-stage heart failure or advanced heart failure. It is an extensive surgery most often used when other medications and surgical procedures have failed. The procedure may be performed to treat:

  • Congenital heart disease
  • Life-threatening arrhythmias, or abnormal heart beats or rhythms, that do not respond to other treatments
  • Severe angina that can no longer be treated with medications or other surgeries
  • Severe heart failure caused by congenital heart defects, heart valve disease, cardiomyopathy and peripheral artery disease

Why Choose Loyola for Heart Transplant Surgery?

Loyola has the most experienced heart transplant program in the state of Illinois and has performed more than 750 heart transplants since the program was started in 1984. Loyola’s one-year patient survival rate exceeds other Chicago programs. Our one-month and one-year patient survival rates exceed the national average, as do our one-month, one-year and three-year graft survival rates. 

Loyola is known for taking on the most challenging cases and provides follow-up care for hundreds of heart transplant patients. If you’ve been turned down by another transplant center, consider getting a second opinion at Loyola. Loyola’s Transplant Center has the medical expertise and technological resources to care for the most difficult conditions.

Our board-certified transplant surgeons are widely regarded and highly skilled, and our infectious disease team ensures that the transferred tissue is healthy. As a world-class academic medical center, Loyola’s doctors perform and teach the latest surgical techniques and leading-edge medical care for end-stage heart failure. Our skilled and compassionate nurse coordinators work closely with transplant patients, providing support and answering your questions—not only before surgery but afterward as well.

What are the Different Types of Heart Transplants?

Heart transplant patients can benefit from two kinds of transplants:

  • Heart transplant — This surgery removes a diseased or damaged heart and replaces it with a donated heart that is a close match to the transplant patient’s tissue type.
     
  • Heart-lung transplant — In this procedure, the diseased or damaged heart and lungs are removed and replaced with a donated heart and pair of lungs. This is often the recommended therapy for people with severe pulmonary hypertension.

What You Can Expect with Heart Transplant Surgery

Once a donor heart becomes available, your medical team will quickly make the arrangements for your surgery and hospital stay. Your nurse coordinator will inform you and your family about where to go. Time is of the essence and you will be expected to leave for the hospital shortly after receiving the call that a donor heart is available.

After you arrive, you will undergo a few final tests for infection, fever and other conditions. In the operating room, you will receive general anesthesia and be set up for an IV. You also will be put on a Foley catheter to manage urine production. 

Your transplant surgeon will make a large incision in your chest and divide your sternum. You will be set up on a cardiopulmonary bypass machine to maintain blood circulation and oxygen levels. In most cases, your Loyola surgeon will remove your damaged heart before transplanting your donor heart; but in some cases, the new heart is placed on top of the old heart (heterotopic transplant). Once the donated heart is in place and the veins and arteries are connected, your surgeon will restart the heart with an electric shock. The surgery can take six to 12 hours or more. Tubes to drain fluid, blood and air will be inserted and will remain for several days after surgery.

Ongoing Support and Treatment After Heart Transplant Surgery

Your doctors and nurses will monitor you very closely after surgery. Your nurses will give you pain medication to ease any discomfort you may experience. After your breathing tube is removed, your nurses will help you with deep breathing exercises. Physical therapists will help you to start walking and begin your rehabilitation. You will have a catheter as you recover from transplant surgery. The average hospital stay for this surgery is about 15 days, but each patient’s case is unique.

Loyola’s medical staff will send you home with immunosuppressive medication. Before your surgery, you will be given a strict schedule for your immunosuppressive medication, which is very important to follow. You will need to take these medications for the rest of your life to prevent your body from rejecting your donated heart. These medications work by lowering your body’s immune response to the new tissue, but this will make you more vulnerable to infection, especially in the first several months. You should call your nurse coordinator right away if you develop these signs of organ rejection:

  • Chills
  • Extra pain around incision site
  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Fluid in the lungs
  • Redness, swelling, bleeding or drainage from incision site
  • Shortness of breath
  • Urinating less than usual
  • Weight gain from water retention

You will be instructed not to lift anything heavy after surgery until your cardiologist gives you clearance. Although initially you should avoid strenuous exercise, you should still walk every day and stay active. You will have several months of cardiac rehabilitation. You should also carefully follow your nutrition plan, as your body will have extra requirements as you heal. If you are from out of town, you will be asked to remain in the area for at least two months as your cardiologist adjusts your medications and monitors you for signs of rejection.

Heart recipients are followed quite closely during the first year after surgery with frequent labs, echocardiograms and clinic visits. Your cardiologist may also order a heart biopsy to check for organ rejection. You should be able to return to work about six months after your surgery.

After you are discharged, you will have weekly doctor appointments and lab work twice a week, as well as chest X-rays. Eventually, visits with your cardiologist will become less frequent and your care team will start to integrate your primary care doctor in your care. 

Your transplant care team is your partner for life and available around the clock should you have any questions or concerns. To learn more, read our heart transplant frequently asked questions or call us at 708-327-2738.

What are the Risks of Heart Transplant Surgery?

Whether you have suffered from advanced heart failure, cardiomyopathy or another condition, a heart transplant may be the best treatment for your condition. Yet all surgery involves risks. The risks of heart transplant surgery include:

  • Bleeding
  • Blood clots
  • Cancer (from immunosuppressive drugs)
  • Coronary artery disease
  • Death
  • Heart attack
  • Heart rejection
  • Heart rhythm problems
  • Hypertension
  • High cholesterol levels, diabetes and osteoporosis (from immunosuppressive drugs)
  • Infection
  • Kidney and liver damage (from immunosuppressive drugs)
  • Stroke
  • Vascular problem

Pre- and Post-Heart Transplant Care in Your Community

Loyola is proud to offer patients a shared care model for your heart failure and transplant needs. Under this model of treatment, Loyola works with your primary cardiologist in your community to enable you to return to your normal routine and daily life. Working jointly with your local cardiologist following surgery enables you to have your ongoing follow-up care in your own community. We offer partnerships with:

  • Centegra Health System in McHenry and Woodstock
  • Mercy Hospital and Medical Center in Chicago
  • OSF St. Anthony Medical Center in Rockford
  • Presence St. Joseph’s Hospital in Joliet
  • Presence St. Mary’s Hospital in Kankakee
  • Rockford Memorial Hospital