Lesson Plan - Get It!
You've probably heard someone say, "Aww, have a heart!" That can become literally true in the case of an organ donor.
Have you ever given a really valuable gift to a stranger?
Organ transplants are really special gifts that are given to patients in need. Heart transplants occur when an individual's heart is damaged or diseased to the extent of reduced ability to function. These intense surgeries are usually done when the patient is experiencing heart failure.
Before you continue, if you haven't yet read, or need to review, the three previous Related Lessons in our Circulatory System series, find them all in the right-hand sidebar.
Heart failure occurs when the heart muscle is unable to effectively pump blood. This reduction in ability leads to lower levels of oxygen and nutrients throughout the body that can have negative results on the heart tissue and cells of other organ systems. Lower blood flow can result in fatigue and shortness of breath during intense activity or just daily life.
Heart failure worsens over time. The heart tries to make up for the reduced blood flow by growing enlarged. This growth can cause fluid to build up in your body and lungs.
The heart also produces more cardiac muscle and pumps faster to offset the reduction in blood flow, which can lead to additional issues, like heart attacks.
Patients are evaluated based on a variety of factors to determine eligibility for heart transplants. These factors include the causes of heart failure, health of other organs, age, lifestyle, and donor match. Heart transplants rely on recovering matching donor hearts.
Organ donors voluntarily offer organs to those in need. Usually, organs are harvested from individuals who are living on life support with no brain activity. These individuals are still providing blood and oxygen to the major organs, but will probably never regain brain function. Families can elect to donate organs if a family member is hurt and unable to respond.
Patients who need a heart transplant are placed on a donor waiting list. Organ groups and doctors determine who is placed on the list and when they receive organs. They consider the health of patients and the length of time they have been waiting to determine who receives the organs. Individuals can wait for days or years before receiving a donor heart.
Once a heart failure patient has been matched with a donor, they begin the transplant process. Families must be ready to go to the hospital at any time, because the organ may come available in the middle of the night! Before the surgery, the operating team will ensure that the donor heart is a good match and run tests to determine if the patient is ready for surgery.
In the operating room, surgeons remove the damaged heart by cutting blood vessels around the heart. Then, they place the new heart and attach the muscle by sewing it to the blood vessels. Doctors check that the new heart beats effectively and then close the incision. Most surgeries take between 4 and 6 hours!
After surgery, patients need a great deal of rest to recover! Most patients end up in an intensive care unit (ICU) so that nurses and doctors can closely monitor breathing, sedation, pain, and heart function. Usually, individuals can transition out of ICU after about 10 days and are moved to a more permanent room for the next 4 weeks. Patients are monitored by a medical team during the hospital stay — doctors and nurses who want to be sure the new heart is functioning!
There are a couple of important complications that can result from heart transplants. The patient's body may reject the new heart and start to attack the cardiac tissue like an invader. There are medications that can reduce the risk of this outcome, but sometimes it occurs anyway. The risk of rejection decreases weeks and months after the surgery, but the heart patient will need anti-rejection medications for life. With any surgery, there is a chance of infection introduced from the environment. This issue can generally be treated with antibiotics.
There are instances where the new heart does not function effectively or the body's immune system continues to reject the new heart. In these situations, individuals can require another heart transplant in order to survive.
Heart transplants save lives. They provide a second chance to patients who are experiencing life-threatening heart failure. Transplants depend on organ donors who are willing to provide the valuable organs. As very complex surgeries, they require a long recovery time and careful monitoring by medical personnel. Heart transplants also carry risk, but the reward outweighs potential drawbacks for most patients.
In the Got It? section, you will learn more about organ donation procedures!