Transplant Surgery

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Transplant Surgery

Normal results
Morbidity and mortality rates


Transplant surgery is the surgical removal of organs, tissue, or blood products from a donor and surgically placing or infusing them into a recipient. There are four categories of transplantation, classified by tissue origin: autograft (donor and recipient are the same person); isograft or syngeneic graft (donor and recipient are genetically identical, as in identical twins); allograft or homograft (donor and recipient are genetically unrelated but belong to the same species, i.e., both are human beings) and xenograft or heterograft (donor and recipient belong to different species, i.e., chimpanzee or rabbit tissues have been used in humans on an experimental basis).


Antibody— A substance produced by the immune system in response to specific antigens, thereby helping the body fight infection and foreign substances. An antibody screen involves mixing the white blood cells of the donor with the serum of the recipient to determine if antibodies in the recipient react with the antigens of the donor.

Autologous blood— The patient’s own blood, drawn and set aside for use during surgery in case a transfusion is needed.

Bone densitometry test— A test that quickly and accurately measures the density of bone.

Brain death— Irreversible cessation of brain function. Patients with brain death have no potential capacity for survival or for recovery of any brain function.

Cadaveric donor— An organ donor who has recently died of causes not affecting the organ intended for transplant.

Compatible donor— A person whose tissue and blood type are the same as the recipient’s.

Confirmatory typing— Repeat tissue typing to confirm the compatibility of the donor and patient before transplant

Donor— A person who supplies organ(s), tissue or blood to another person for transplantation.

Harvesting— The process of removing tissues or organs from a donor and preserving them for transplantation.

Hemodilution— A technique in which the fluid content of the blood is increased without increasing the number of red blood cells.

Human leuckocyte antigen (HLA)— A group of protein molecules located on bone marrow cells that can provoke an immune response. A donor’s and a recipient’s HLA types should match as closely as possible to prevent the recipient’s immune system from attacking the donor’s marrow as a foreign material that does not belong in the body.

Immunosuppression— The use of medications to suppress the immune system to prevent organ rejection.

Organ procurement— The process of donor screening, and the evaluation, removal, preservation, and distribution of organs for transplantation.

Pulmonary function test— A test that measures the capacity and function of the lungs as well as the blood’s ability to carry oxygen. During the test, the patient breathes into a device called a spirometer.

Rejection— An immune response that occurs when a transplanted organ is viewed as a foreign substance by the body. If left untreated, rejection can lead to organ failure and even death.


Transplant surgery is a treatment option for diseases or conditions that have not improved with other medical treatments and have led to organ failure or injury. Transplant surgery is generally reserved for people with end-stage disease who have no other options.

The decision to perform transplant surgery is based on the patient’s age, general physical condition, specific diagnosis, and stage of the disease. Transplant surgery is not recommended for patients who have liver, lung, or kidney problems; poor leg circulation; cancer; or chronic infections.


The typical cut-off age for a transplant recipient ranges between 40 and 55 years; however, a person’s general health is usually a more important factor. In addition, the percentage of transplant recipients over age 50 has increased since 1996.

On average, 66 people receive transplants every day from either a living or deceased donor. Between January and October 2007, 23,703 transplants were performed in the United States; 18,388 organs came from deceased donors, while 5,315 came from living donors.

The national waiting list for most transplanted organs continues to grow every year, even though the number of recipients waiting for a heart transplant has leveled off in recent years, and the waiting list for heart-lung transplants has decreased over the past few years. As of January 2008, there were about 98,000 eligible recipients waiting for an organ transplant in the United States.


Organ donors

Organ donors are classified as living donors or cadaveric (non-living) donors. All donors are carefully screened to make sure there is a suitable blood type match and to prevent any transmissible diseases or other complications.

LIVING DONORS. Living donors may be family members or biologically unrelated to the recipient. From 1992 to 2001, the number of biologically unrelated living donors increased tenfold. Living donors must be physically fit, in good general health, and have no existing disorders such as diabetes, high blood pressure, cancer, kidney disease, or heart disease. Of all the organs transplanted in 2007, about 23% came from living donors. Organs that can be donated from living donors include:

  • Single kidneys. In 2002, 52% of all kidney transplants came from living donors. There is little risk in living with one kidney because the remaining kidney compensates for and performs the work of both.
  • Liver. Living donors can donate segments of the liver because the organ can regenerate and regain full function. The number of living donor liver transplants has doubled since 1999.
  • Lung. Living donors can donate lobes of the lung although lung tissue does not regenerate.
  • Pancreas. Living donors can donate a portion of the pancreas even though the gland does not regenerate.

Organs donated from living donors eliminate the need to place the recipient on the national waiting list. Transplant surgery can be scheduled at a mutually acceptable time rather than performed under emergency conditions. In addition, the recipient can begin taking immunosuppressant medications two days before the transplant surgery to prevent the risk of rejection. Living donor transplants are often more successful than cadaveric donor transplants because there is a better tissue match between the donor and recipient. The living donor’s medical expenses are usually covered by the organ recipient’s insurance company, but the amount of coverage may vary.

CADAVERIC OR DECEASED DONORS. Organs from cadaveric donors come from people who have recently died and have willed their organs before death by signing an organ donor card, or are brain-dead. The donor’s family must give permission for organ donation at the time of death or diagnosis of brain death. Cadaveric donors may be young adults with traumatic head injuries, or older adults suffering from a stroke. The majority of deceased donors are older than the general population.

Transplant procedures

ORGAN HARVESTING. Harvesting refers to the process of removing cells or tissues from the donor and preserving them until they are transplanted. If the donor is deceased, the organ or tissues are harvested in a sterile operating room. They are packed carefully for transportation and delivered to the recipient via ambulance, helicopter, or airplane. Organs from deceased donors should be transplanted within a few hours of harvesting. After the recipient is notified that an organ has become available, he or she should not eat or drink anything.

When the organ is harvested from a living donor, the recipient’s transplant surgery follows immediately after the donor’s surgery. The recipient and the donor should not eat or drink anything after midnight the evening before the scheduled operation.

PREOPERATIVE PROCEDURES. After arriving at the hospital, the recipient will have a complete physical and such other tests as a chest x ray, blood tests, and an electrocardiogram (EKG) to evaluate his or her fitness for surgery. If the recipient has an infection or major medical problem, or if the donor organ is found to be unacceptable, the operation will be canceled.

The recipient will be prepared for surgery by having the incision site shaved and cleansed. An intravenous tube (IV) will be placed in the arm to deliver medications and fluids, and a sedative will be given to help the patient relax.

TRANSPLANT SURGERY. After the patient has been brought to the operating room, the anesthesiologist will administer a general anesthetic. A central venous catheter may be placed in a vein in the patient’s arm or groin. A breathing tube will be placed in the patient’s throat. The breathing tube is attached to a mechanical ventilator that expands the lungs during surgery.

The patient will then be connected to a heart-lung bypass machine, also called a cardiopulmonary bypass pump, which takes over for the heart and lungs during the surgery. The heart-lung machine removes carbon dioxide from the blood and replaces it with oxygen. A tube is inserted into the patient’s aorta to carry the oxygenated blood from the bypass machine back to the heart for circulation to the body. A nasogastric tube is placed to drain stomach secretions, and a urinary catheter is inserted to drain urine during the surgery.

The surgeon carefully removes the diseased organ and replaces it with the donor organ. The blood vessels of the donated organ are connected to the patient’s blood vessels, allowing blood to flow through the new organ.


Pre-transplant evaluation

Several tests are performed before the transplant surgery to make sure that the patient is eligible to receive the organ and to identify and treat any problems ahead of time. The more common pre-transplant tests include:

  • tissue typing
  • blood tests
  • chest x ray
  • pulmonary function tests
  • computed tomography (CT) scan
  • heart function tests (electrocardiogram, echocardiogram, and cardiac catheterization)
  • sigmoidoscopy
  • bone densitometry test

The pre-transplant evaluation usually includes a dietary and social work assessment. In addition, the patient must undergo a complete dental examination to reduce the risk of infection from bacteria in the mouth.

Insurance considerations

Organ transplantation is an expensive procedure. Insurance companies and health maintenance organizations (HMOs) may not cover all costs. Many insurance companies require precertification letters of medical necessity. As soon as transplantation is discussed as a treatment option, the patient should contact his or her insurance provider as soon as possible to determine what costs will be covered. In the United States as of early 2008, a kidney transplant may cost as much as $100,000, a liver transplant $250,000, and a heart transplant $860,000. There are, however, organizations that can assist with raising funds to cover the cost of transplantation, such as the National Foundation for Transplants and the National Transplant Assistance Fund and Catastrophic Injury Program.

Patient education and lifestyle changes

Before undergoing transplant surgery, the transplant team will ensure that the patient understands the potential benefits and risks of the procedure. In addition, a team of health care providers will review the patient’s social history and psychological test results to ensure that he or she is able to comply with the regimen that is needed after transplant surgery. An organ transplant requires major lifestyle changes, including dietary adjustments, complex drug treatments, and frequent examinations. The patient must be committed to making these changes in order to become a candidate for transplant. Most transplant centers have extensive patient education programs.

Smoking cessation is an important consideration for patients who use tobacco. Many transplant programs require the patient to be a nonsmoker for a certain amount of time (usually six months) before he or she is eligible to participate in the pre-transplant screening evaluation. The patient must also be committed to avoid tobacco products after the transplant.

Informed consent

Patients are legally required to sign an informed consent form prior to transplant surgery. Informed consent signifies that the patient is a knowledgeable participant in making healthcare decisions. The doctor will discuss all of the following with the patient before he or she signs the form: the nature of the surgery; reasonable alternatives to the surgery; and the risks, benefits, and uncertainties of each option. Informed consent also requires the doctor to make sure that the patient understands the information that has been given.

Finding a donor

After the patient has completed the pre-transplant evaluation and has been approved for transplant surgery, the next step is locating a donor. Organs from cadaveric donors are located through a computerized national waiting list maintained by the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS) to assure equal access to and fair distribution of organs. When a deceased organ donor is identified, a transplant coordinator from an organ procurement organization enters the donor’s data in the UNOS computer. The computer then generates a list of potential recipients. This list is called a match run. Factors affecting a potential organ recipient’s ranking on the match run list include: tissue match, blood type, size of the organ, length of time on the waiting list, immune status, and the geographical distance between the recipient and donor. For some transplants, such as heart, liver, and intestinal segments, the degree of medical urgency is also taken into consideration.

The organ is offered to the transplant team of the first person on the ranked waiting list. The recipient must be healthy enough to undergo surgery, available, and willing to receive the organ transplant immediately. The matching process involves cross matching, performing an antibody screen and a host of other tests.

Donor searching can be a long and stressful process. A supportive network of friends and family is important to help the patient cope during this time. The healthcare provider or social worker can also put the patient in touch with support groups for transplant patients.

Contact and travel arrangements

The patient must be ready to go to the hospital as soon as possible after being notified that an organ is available. A suitcase should be kept packed at all times. Transportation arrangements should be made ahead of time. If the recipient lives more than a 90 minute drive from the transplant center, the transplant coordinator will help make transportation arrangements for the recipient and one friend or family member.

Because harvested organs cannot be preserved for more than a few hours, the transplant team must be able to contact the patient at all times. Some transplant programs offer a pager rental service, to be used only for receiving the call from the transplant center. The patient should clear travel plans with the transplant coordinator before taking any trips.

Blood donation and conservation

Some transplant centers allow patients to donate their own blood before surgery, which is known as autologous donation. Autologous blood is the safest blood for transfusion, since there is no risk of disease transmission. Preoperative donation is an option for patients receiving an organ from a living donor, since the surgery can be scheduled in advance. In autologous donation, the patient donates blood once a week for one to three weeks before surgery. The blood is separated and the blood components needed are rein-fused during the operation.

In addition to preoperative donation, there are several techniques for minimizing the patient’s blood loss during surgery:

  • Intraoperative blood collection. The blood lost during surgery is processed, and the red blood cells are reinfused during or immediately after surgery.
  • Immediate preoperative hemodilution. The patient donates blood immediately before surgery to decrease the loss of red blood cells during the operation. The patient is then given fluids to restore the volume of the blood.
  • Postoperative blood collection. The blood lost from the incision following surgery is collected and rein-fused after the surgical site has been closed.


Inpatient recovery

A transplant recipient can expect to spend three to four weeks in the hospital after surgery. Immediately following the operation, the patient is transferred to an intensive care unit (ICU) for close monitoring of his or her vital signs. When the patient’s condition is

stable, he or she is transferred to a hospital room, usually in a specialized transplant unit. The IV in the patient’s arm, the urinary catheter, and a dressing over the incision remain in place for several days. A chest tube may be placed to drain excess fluids. Special stockings may be placed on the patient’ss legs to prevent blood clots in the deep veins of the legs. A breathing aid called an incentive spirometer is used to help keep the patient’s lungs clear and active after surgery.

Medications to relieve pain will be given every three to four hours, or through a device known as a PCA (patient-controlled anesthesia). The PCA is a small pump that delivers a dose of medication into the IV when the patient pushes a button. The transplant recipient will also be given immunosuppressive medications to prevent the risk of organ rejection. These medications are typically taken by the recipient for the rest of his or her life.

A 2–4 week waiting period is necessary before the transplant team can evaluate the success of the procedure. Visitors are limited during this time to minimize the risk of infection. The patient will be given intravenous antibiotic, antiviral and antifungal medications, as well as blood and platelet transfusions to help fight off infection and prevent excessive bleeding. Blood tests are performed daily to monitor the patient’s kidney and liver function, as well as his or her nutritional status. Other tests are performed as needed.

Outpatient recovery

After leaving the hospital, the transplant recipient will be monitored through home or outpatient visits for as long as a year. Medication adjustments are often necessary, but barring complications, the recipient can return to normal activities about 6–8 months after the transplant.

Proper outpatient care includes:

  • taking medications exactly as prescribed
  • attending all scheduled follow-up visits
  • contacting the transplant team at the first signs of infection or organ rejection
  • having blood drawn regularly
  • following dietary and exercise recommendations
  • avoiding rough contact sports and heavy lifting
  • taking precautions against infection
  • avoiding pregnancy for at least a year


Short-term risks following an organ transplant include pneumonia and other infectious diseases; excessive bleeding; and liver disorders caused by blocked blood vessels. In addition, the new organ may be rejected, which means that the patient’s immune system is attacking the new organ. Characteristic signs of rejection include fever, rash, diarrhea, liver problems, and a compromised immune system. Transplant recipients are given immunosuppressive medications to minimize the risk of rejection. In most cases, the patient will take these medications for the rest of his or her life.

Long-term risks include an elevated risk of cancer, particularly skin cancer. An estimated 6-8% of transplant patients develop cancer over their lifetime as compared to less than 1% in the general population.

There is a very small risk of infection from a transplanted organ, even though donors in the United States and Canada are carefully screened. In 2007, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported a case in which four organ recipients in the Chicago area developed hepatitis C and HIV infection from a high-risk donor. The diseases did not show up on screening tests because the donor contracted them about three weeks before his death, when there were not enough antibodies in his blood to be detected by present tests.

Normal results

In a successful organ transplant, the patient returns to a more nearly normal lifestyle with increased strength and stamina.

Morbidity and mortality rates

Mortality figures for transplant surgery include recipients who die before a match with a suitable donor can be found. About 17 patients die every day in the United States waiting for a transplant. In 2001, over 6,000 patients died because the organ they needed was not donated in time.

The Scientific Registry of Transplant Recipients gives the first-year survival rates for transplant surgery as follows:

  • 97% of pancreas transplant recipients
  • 95% of kidney transplant and kidney/pancreas recipients
  • 90% of autologous bone marrow transplant patients
  • 86% of liver transplant patients
  • 85% of heart transplant patients
  • 77% of lung transplant patients
  • 70% of allogeneic bone marrow transplant patients


A transplant surgeon, along with a multidisciplinary team of transplant specialists, should perform the transplant surgery. Transplant surgeons are usually board-certified by the American Board of Surgery, as well as certified by the medical specialty board or boards related to the type of organ transplant performed. Members of transplant teams include infectious disease specialists, pharmacologists, psychiatrists, advanced care registered nurses, and transplant coordinators in addition to the surgeons and anesthesiologists.

Organ transplants are performed in special transplant centers, which should be members of the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS) as well as of state-level accreditation organizations.

Three-year survival rates are:

  • 91% for kidney transplant patients
  • 87% for pancreas and kidney/pancreas transplant patients
  • 80% for liver transplant patients
  • 79% for heart transplant patients
  • 59% for lung transplant patients

As of early 2008, about 180,000 Americans are living with a transplanted organ.


Clinical trials

Available alternatives to transplant surgery depend upon the individual patient’s diagnosis and severity of illness. Some patients may be eligible to participate in clinical trials, which are research programs that evaluate a new medical treatment, drug or device. As of early 2008, the NIH has 1,092 studies of organ transplantation that are seeking new volunteers.

Complementary and alternative (CAM) therapies

Complementary therapies can be used along with standard treatments to help alleviate the patient’s pain; strengthen muscles; and decrease depression, anxiety, and stress. Before trying a complementary treatment, however, patients should check with their doctors to make sure that it will not interfere with standard therapy


  • Who performs the transplant surgery? How many other transplant surgeries has this surgeon performed?
  • Where will my organ come from?
  • What is the typical waiting period before a donoris found?
  • Will my insurance provider cover the expenses of my transplant?
  • What types of precautions must I follow before and after my transplant?
  • What are the signs of infection and rejection, and what types of symptoms should I report to my doctor?
  • When will I find out if the transplant was successful?

or cause harm. Alternative approaches that have helped transplant recipients maintain a positive mental attitude both before and after surgery include meditation, biofeedback, and various relaxation techniques. Massage therapy, music therapy, aromatherapy, and hydrotherapy are other types of treatment that can offer patients some pleasant sensory experiences as well as relieve pain. Acupuncture has been shown in a number of NIH-sponsored studies to be effective in relieving nausea and headache, as well as chronic muscle and joint pain. Some insurance carriers cover the cost of acupuncture treatments.



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Angela M. Costello

Rebecca Frey, PhD

Transposition of the great arteries seeHeart surgery for congenital defects

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