Medical procedures explained: Follow-up is Key in Heart Transplants

Roughly 2,100 people each year are fortunate enough to be given
a second chance at life through heart transplant procedures.
Progressive heart failure is mostly treated by drugs and dietary
and lifestyle changes, but when that’s not enough, the only hope is
to find the person a new heart.
Roughly 2,100 people each year are fortunate enough to be given a second chance at life through heart transplant procedures. Progressive heart failure is mostly treated by drugs and dietary and lifestyle changes, but when that’s not enough, the only hope is to find the person a new heart.

“The hardest part is finding donors,” said Dr. Martin Bress, a cardiologist in Hollister. “When someone needs a kidney they can have one of their family members donate one, but it’s not the same with a heart. Unless someone gets in a car accident or something like that, we don’t have a heart to transplant.”

During the actual procedure, a surgeon connects the patient to a heart-lung machine, which takes over the functions of the heart and lungs. The heart-lung machine has tubes that are connected to the arteries, and the patient’s blood is pumped through the machine.

The surgeon removes the diseased heart and replaces it with the donor heart. The new heart is connected to the major blood vessels and arteries with vascular clips, which Bress said are like staples.

“It’s fast and they usually hold up great,” he said.

The transplant itself takes roughly three hours to perform and the success rate is high, with 80 percent of patients living for more than a year after the operation, according to the American Heart Association.

It’s the complications that come after the surgery that can harm the patient’s health. The drugs used to reduce the potential for infection have adverse affects on how the body accepts the new heart, Bress said. The drugs used can have a hardening effect on the arteries, which is the same thing that heart failure causes.

Bress, who monitors a transplant patient in Hollister, said once a patient gets through the initial phase, their success rate is good. After a transplant, a patient is constantly monitored. Bress said an endocardio biopsy is usually performed, which is when the doctor snips a small piece off the wall of the heart and examines it, Bress said.

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