heart transplant


A heart (cardiac) transplant is a major surgical procedure in which a diseased or failing heart is replaced with a healthy heart from a donor (called orthotopic transplant).

Most patients who need a heart transplants have end stage heart failure, severe coronary artery disease, congenital (from birth) disease or severe, life-threatening heart rhythms. Usually, medical therapies have been tried and have failed. A transplant is a life-saving measure and candidates must go through a selection process. To get a transplant, you have to be sick enough to need one to live, but still healthy enough to survive the surgery. 

A heart transplant is major surgery, with risks and complications including infection and organ rejection. There are also side effects to drugs, used to suppress your immune system, which must be taken for the rest of your life.


A heart transplant starts with an evaluation at the Advanced Heart Failure Therapies Clinic at Aurora St. Luke’s Medical Center.

Diagnostic tests may include:

  • Cardiac catheterization to check for blockages in the blood vessels of the heart (if not recently done)
  • Echocardiogram (cardiac ultrasound testing) to check your heart muscle strength and the function of your heart valves
  • A low-level stress test to determine heart function during exercise
  • Antibody screening
  • Infectious disease screening
  • Blood and tissue typing
  • Kidney, liver and pulmonary function tests
  • Dental evaluation
  • Bone mineral density test

You’ll go through a thorough medical and psychosocial evaluation. The results of your evaluation will be presented at a selection committee meeting. If you’re considered eligible for a heart transplant, you’ll be put on a national waiting list for a donor heart. A transplant nurse coordinator will give you the results of your evaluation and updates on your status. 

The wait for a matching heart can vary from a few days to a few years. When a suitable donor heart becomes available, you’ll be notified by the coordinator or cardiologist and asked to come to the hospital.

what to expect

If an appropriate donor heart is found, the procurement team will bring the heart to the hospital while you are prepared for surgery. 

In the operating room, you’ll be put under general anesthesia so you’re completely asleep. Your anesthesiologist will put in a central line, which is a large IV for delivering medications. Another line will be used to monitor your heart function. You’ll also get a breathing tube, connected to a breathing machine (ventilator), and a catheter to empty your bladder.

An incision is made along the breast bone. You will be connected to a heart-lung bypass machine, which allows the surgeon to stop your heart from beating and keeps your blood circulating while the heart is stopped. The diseased heart will be removed and the donor heart placed. Your surgeon may use electrical shocks (defibrillation) and possibly medications to restart the donor heart and then close your incision. There will also be temporary drainage tubes inserted into your chest cavity to drain blood and fluid.


You’ll recover in the cardiovascular intensive care unit. You’ll have monitoring lines to check your heart rhythm, a ventilator to help you breathe, chest tubes to drain fluid from the chest and a urinary catheter. Gradually these lines and tubes will be removed and diet and activity will be increased. You’ll begin taking immunosuppression or anti-rejection medications, and will learn how to take these medications at home and how to care for yourself.

A team – including nurses; physical, occupational and cardiac rehabilitation therapists; dieticians and pharmacists; and your cardiologist and cardiac surgeon and their staffs – will work with you to provide care and education and to plan your discharge.

After your discharge, you’ll have weekly cardiac biopsies to monitor how well your body is accepting the new heart. Weekly follow-ups in the transplant clinic will also include laboratory testing. Your transplant nurse coordinator will keep you updated on testing, biopsy, and appointment plans, and also check in to see how you are doing and answer any questions.

why Aurora?

More than 800 patients have received new hearts at Aurora – some of the sickest patients in the nation with some of the best outcomes, including one month survival at 100%. In fact, Aurora St. Luke’s Medical Center is one of the largest transplant programs in the country. We’re here for you throughout the process of receiving a heart transplant, offering comprehensive, coordinated care from your initial evaluation to your care post-transplant. Our Advanced Heart Health Failure Clinic is here to help you medically manage your failing heart while you wait for a donor heart.

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