11 things to know about heart transplants (according to a team that’s done 500)


The Nebraska Medicine Heart Transplant Team celebrates its 500th heart transplant. And wow, their hearts are full.

“Doing 500 transplants gives so many people a second chance,” says Brian Lowes, MD, PhD. Dr. Lowes specializes in advanced heart failure and transplant cardiology. He attributes this exciting step to the advanced expertise of the team. “We’re using the next generation of technology here. And our surgeons are going further and further to prepare more organs for transplant.”

Cardiac surgeon John Um, MD, is thrilled to change hearts and lives. “Being involved with such a common problem, but at the cutting edge of the latest techniques, has been very rewarding for me as a professional.”

Get 11 heart transplant facts from the area’s leading transplant center.

1. Transportation has become far more advanced than putting hearts on ice.

“A few years ago, the only option for storing and transporting a heart was static storage, which meant we would stop the heart with cardioplegia and then place it in an ice bath,” says Dr. Um.

Hearts on ice have a shelf life of about four hours, which limits the distance a heart can travel, as well as the complexity of the operation.

Recently, the transportation of heart transplant recipients received a major upgrade, with a portable box that keeps the heart warm and active. “With the organ care system, we can extend the length of time a heart is outside the body,” says Dr Um. “The heart beats and is perfused, so it can last longer during transport.”

2. More cores are available than before, thanks to DCD cores.

Until about two years ago, all transplants came from brain-dead donors. But it is more common for people to die from a cause where the heart stops beating. This has limited the number of organs available for transplantation.

But now surgeons can also use organs from donors whose hearts have stopped beating. Donation after cardiac death – or DCD organs – gives more second chances. “According to some estimates, the DCD has expanded the donor pool by 25% to 30%. This is a rapidly changing field because the surgery is new. Not all transplant centers can offer this new type of heart transplant” , explains Dr. Um.

3. You can get vaccinated against COVID-19 before or after a heart transplant.

“We recommend that patients receive all of their vaccines before surgery, as they respond better to vaccines before transplant rather than after immunosuppressive therapy,” says Dr. Lowes. “But we also continue to vaccinate people after transplantation. There is an increased risk of COVID-19 infection after transplantation, which vaccination protects against.”

In fact, Nebraska Medicine has infectious disease transplant physicians. “It’s all the more reason to come here,” says Dr. Lowes.

4. The surgery can take anywhere from three to eight hours.

Some things that affect timing include the speed at which the organ comes in. “If the heart comes to us quickly and the patient has never had heart surgery before, the operation can be quite short,” says Dr Um. “On the other hand, people who have had congenital heart surgery may take longer.”

5. Our surgeons can even transplant hearts from donors with Hepatitis C and COVID-19.

Some centers cannot handle the complexity of a heart from a hepatitis C positive donor or a COVID-19 positive donor. Our surgeons are experienced in safely transplanting these hearts, which alleviates some of the donor shortage. “We’re using the next generation of medical therapies and technologies to bring organs back into people, so they can live longer and have a better quality of life,” says Dr. Lowes.

Get help from heart experts

Nebraska Medicine is the only medical center in the region with a nationally certified cardiologist in heart failure. Call 800.922.0000 for a cardiac evaluation or start the transplant process online.

6. Can heart transplant patients have babies? It depends.

“Men can have children after a heart transplant,” says Dr. Um. For women, on the other hand, it is complicated. Pregnancy puts extra strain on the heart, and the anti-rejection medications a patient must take for the rest of their life can potentially harm the baby’s development.

If you want to have children, talk to your heart transplant team.

7. Recovery time after a heart transplant varies.

Heart transplant patients usually spend about two and a half weeks in the hospital. Most people feel quite well after four to six weeks, but it depends on the patient’s medical history and health.

8. Drink alcohol or smoke weed after the transplant? Not a good idea.

Due to drug interactions, heart transplant patients should not drink alcohol.

“To some degree, the life of the heart depends on patient engagement,” says Dr. Lowes. “It’s a lot of work. They take medication every day, are routinely monitored for problems, and adhere to their general follow-up and care. The good news is that people can live a long life. with a heart transplant if they take care of it.”

Likewise, weed is not good for someone with a transplanted heart. For several health reasons, including inhalation injuries, carcinogenic chemicals, and the risk of emphysema and chronic bronchitis, marijuana can cause lasting harm.

9. Heart transplant patients can take medication for ED under the supervision of a physician.

Under the supervision of a doctor, patients can usually take erectile dysfunction drugs like Viagra. People taking nitrates may not be able to and should consult their doctor. “In general, we want people to return to normal aspects of their lives,” says Dr Um.

10. Heart transplant rejection can be reversed with early treatment.

Rejection is likely, and an expected part of recovery. Heart transplant rejection occurs when your immune system thinks the transplanted heart is a threat and tries to attack it.

A heart transplant patient takes powerful drugs to prevent rejection. It is important to take all medications as directed.

“We have good treatments for heart transplant rejection,” says Dr. Lowes. “We can often diagnose and treat it before it causes heart damage.” The therapies work best when started early – so if you experience any symptoms of rejection, including unusual tiredness and shortness of breath, contact your transplant team immediately.

11. You can make a vital decision today.

People who are on an organ waiting list usually have a terminal organ disease that significantly affects their quality of life and may be near the end of their life. Receiving an organ can become a life-changing event for these people.

Register to become an organ donor. One organ donor has the potential to save eight lives!

Becoming a donor is easy.

When you register to renew your license, simply check the box that asks if you would like to be a donor. You can also sign up for Live On Nebraska


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