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What To Expect Before a Heart Transplant – NHLBI, NIH

The Heart Transplant Waiting List

Patients who are eligible for a heart transplant are added to a waiting list for a donor heart. This waiting list is part of a national allocation system for donor organs. The Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network (OPTN) runs this system.

OPTN has policies in place to make sure donor hearts are given out fairly. These policies are based on urgency of need, available organs, and the location of the patient who is receiving the heart (the recipient).

Organs are matched for blood type and size of donor and recipient.

The Donor Heart

Guidelines for how a donor heart is selected require that the donor meet the legal requirement for brain death and that the correct consent forms are signed.

Guidelines suggest that the donor should be younger than 65 years old, have little or no history of heart disease or trauma to the chest, and not be exposed to hepatitis or HIV.

The guidelines recommend that the donor heart should not be without blood circulation for more than 4 hours.

Waiting Times

About 3,000 people in the United States are on the waiting list for a heart transplant on any given day. About 2,000 donor hearts are available each year. Wait times vary from days to several months and will depend on a recipient’s blood type and condition.

A person might be taken off the list for some time if he or she has a serious medical event, such as a stroke, infection, or kidney failure.

Time spent on the waiting list plays a part in who receives a donor heart. For example, if two patients have equal need, the one who has been waiting longer will likely get the first available donor heart.

Ongoing Medical Treatment

Patients on the waiting list for a donor heart get ongoing treatment for heart failure and other medical conditions.

For example, doctors may treat them for arrhythmias (irregular heartbeats). Arrhythmias can cause sudden cardiac arrest in people who have heart failure.

The doctors at the transplant centers may place implantable cardioverter defibrillators (ICDs) in patients before surgery. ICDs are small devices that are placed in the chest or abdomen. They help control life-threatening arrhythmias.

Another possible treatment for waiting list patients is a ventricular assist device (VAD). A VAD is a mechanical pump that helps support heart function and blood flow.

Routine outpatient care for waiting list patients may include frequent exercise testing, testing the strength of the heartbeat, and right cardiac catheterization (a test to measure blood pressure in the right side of the heart).

You also might start a cardiac rehabilitation (rehab) program. Cardiac rehab is a medically supervised program that helps improve the health and well-being of people who have heart problems.

The program can help improve your physical condition before the transplant. Also, you will learn the types of exercises used in the program, which will help you take part in cardiac rehab after the transplant.

Contact With the Transplant Center During the Wait

Patients on the waiting list often are in close contact with their transplant centers. Most donor hearts must be transplanted within 4 hours after removal from the donor.

At some heart transplant centers, patients get a pager so the center can contact them at any time. They’re asked to tell the transplant center staff if they’re going out of town. Patients often need to be prepared to arrive at the hospital within 2 hours of being notified about a donor heart.

Not all patients who are called to the hospital will get a heart transplant. Sometimes, at the last minute, doctors find that a donor heart isn’t suitable for a patient. Other times, patients from the waiting list are called to come in as possible backups, in case something happens with the selected recipient.

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