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Heart transplant is a surgical operation where owner’s diseased heart is replaced with a healthy donor’s heart. The donor is a person who has died and whose family agreed to donate person’s organs to the ones who need it. In today article, we will give our best to explain everything you need to know about heart transplant recovery. If you are considering this option, you have already been on surgery, or you are just curious, This advises will help you understand heart transplant recovery process and how to live with a new heart.
Why Heart Transplant?
Heart transplants are performed when all the other treatments did not work to cure heart diseases and it’s leading to end stage of heart failure. Heart failure can be caused by several conditions, including:
- Weakening of the heart muscle
- Coronary artery disease
- Heart valve disease
- A heart problem you’re born with
- Dangerous recurring abnormal heart rhythms
- Failure of a previous heart transplant
Howerver, not everybody is eligible. There are certain conditions in which you may not be the good candidate for heart transplant. A heart transplant may not be the option for you if you:
- Are an advanced age which may reduce ability to recovery from heart transplant
- Have another medical condition that could shorten your life (serious kidney, liver or lung disease.)
- Have an active infection
- Are unwilling or unable to make changes in your life so you can live with a new heart (not drinking alcohol and not smoking etc.)
- Have a recent medical history of cancer
Risks and Survival Rate
Receiving a donor heart may save your life, but also has several risks:
- Rejection of the donor heart
- Problems with coronary arteries
- Medication side effects
All of these risks may happen, so, always be in touch and listen to your doctor. You will have to strictly follow advises to reduce risks.
In the past, survival rate was much worse than today. In the 1980’s, 76.9% survived 1 year and 62.7% survived 5 years. Newest researches shows that today 84.5% patients survive 1 year and 72.5% survive 5 years. After 20 years, ca. 21% of patients are still alive.
Heart Transplant Recovery Time
The recovery from heart transplant procedure lasts several months and may involve cardiac rehabilitation. Recovery times are different from person to person, usually it takes from 3-6 months to reach end stage of rehabilitation.
Just after the operation, you will be in Intensive Care Unit where doctor will use a lot of equipment to track your heart rate, rhythm, and blood pressure to help your surgeon determine how well your heart is functioning. It will be a bit noisy, so try to tune noises out and relax.
You will be on a breathing machine for at least 6 to 8 hours after procedure until anesthesia wears off. You will not be able to talk at that time. When they remove your breathing tube, nurses and physical therapists will work with you to gradually increase your activity level. Also, you will now be able to talk.
Physical and occupational therapists will work with you to build up your strength and stamina. They will tell you about the safest and most effective ways to increase your activity after your hospital discharge. Also, doctors will teach your caregivers how to take care of your new heart.
After your heart transplant surgery, you’ll need to make several long-term adjustments:
- Taking immunosuppressants – These medications decrease the activity of your immune system to prevent it from attacking your donated heart. Because your immune system will most likely never completely accept the new organ, you’ll take some of these medications for the rest of your life
- Managing medications, therapies and a lifelong care plan – After a heart transplant, taking all your medications as your doctor instructs and following a lifelong care plan is important.
- Cardiac rehabilitation – Cardiac rehabilitation programs incorporate exercise and education to help you improve your health and recover after a heart transplant.
- Emotional support – Your new medical therapies and the stress of having a heart transplant may make you feel overwhelmed. Many people who have had a heart transplant feel this way.Talk to your doctor if you’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed. Transplant centers often have support groups and other resources to help you manage your condition
It is hard to determine how long will you stay in hospital. Usually its 2-3 weeks. Every patient is in a different condition and doctors will decide when it’s safe for you to leave hospital and go for a home care. Physical and occupational therapists will work with you to build up your strength and stamina. They will tell you about the safest and most effective ways to increase your activity after your hospital discharge.
Recovery after heart transplant is similar to any heart surgery. It may take about 6-8 weeks for your incision to heal. You will feel tired and sore for several weeks after surgery. You may have some brief, sharp pains on either side of your chest. Your chest, shoulders, and upper back may ache. The incision in your chest may be sore or swollen. These symptoms usually get better after 4 to 6 weeks.
It is important to rest when you are tired. Sleeping will help your recovery. For the next 8-12 weeks, sleep on your back while your breastbone heals. It takes at least 6-8 weeks for it to heal. Read our article: Why Is Sleep So Important to get more informations.
For the next 3 months, it’s the best to be somewhere near hospital where you had your heart transplant. It’s important because doctors will need to monitor your recovery and check if there are any problems with your new heart.
For a proper healing at home, follow these guidelines:
- Keep your incisions clean and dry – use gentle soap and water to cleanse the site. Do not rub your incisions until the scabs are gone and skin is healed. Do not use any ointments, lotions or dressings on the incision.
- Protect your incision – Do not drive a car for six to eight weeks after your surgery. Your cardiologist will clear you to drive. Do not lift anything over 10-20 pounds for six weeks after your surgery.
- Look for signs of infection – If you have any of these signs, call your doctor: increased drainage from the incision, increased opening from the incision, redness, warmth along incision line, increased body temperature.
- Call Doctor – If you have any signs of infection or if your sternum (breastbone) feels like it moves, or it pops or cracks with a movement
- Take your medications as directed – You will need to take medications the rest of your life to prevent your body from rejecting your new heart and to treat other medical problems. Always take your medications as directed.
Also, during your home recovery period, you will have to implement new diet and intake some nutrients, you may go to a cardiac rehabilitation and exercise to get strength and stamina. We will tell you more about these in the text below.
Cardiac rehab is a medically supervised program designed to improve your cardiovascular health if you have experienced heart attack, heart failure, angioplasty or heart surgery. There are three equally important parts:
- Exercise counseling and training: Exercise gets your heart pumping and your entire cardiovascular system working. You’ll learn how to get your body moving in ways that promote heart health.
- Education for heart-healthy living: A key element of cardiac rehab is educating yourself: How can you manage your risk factors? Quit smoking? Make heart-healthy nutrition choices?
- Counseling to reduce stress: Stress hurts your heart. This part of cardiac rehab helps you identify and tackle everyday sources of stress.
Cardiac rehabilitation specialist will teach you how to train, help you train and recover and also will give you guidelines to do activities at home and improve healing.
Exercising at home
It’s important to follow guidelines given by cardiac exercise specialists. However, it’s good to know some things for a safe exercising:
- Try to walk each day as directed by your cardiac rehab program. Start by walking a little more than you did the day before. Bit by bit, increase the amount you walk. Walking boosts blood flow and helps prevent pneumonia and constipation.
- Avoid strenuous activities, such as bicycle riding, jogging, weight lifting, or heavy aerobic exercise, until your doctor says it is okay.
- For 3 months, avoid activities that strain your chest or upper arm muscles. This includes pushing a lawn mower or vacuum, mopping floors, or swinging a golf club or tennis racket.
- For 2 to 3 months, avoid lifting anything that would make you strain. This may include heavy grocery bags and milk containers, a heavy briefcase or backpack, cat litter or dog food bags, or a child.
During your cardiac rehabilitation time, it’s important to do aerobic exercises. Aerobic exercise involves large muscle groups and includes repetitive movement.
Heart transplant recipients are encouraged to avoid weight gain. Gaining weight may burden your new heart and increase your blood pressure. You should be very carefully with your new heart.
After your heart transplant, you may need to adjust your diet to keep your heart healthy and functioning well. Maintaining a healthy weight through diet and exercise can help you avoid complications such as high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes.
Your doctor may recommend you implement some of those things in your diet:
- Eating plenty of fruits and vegetables
- Eating whole-grain breeds
- Drinking low-fat or fat-free milk
- Eating fish or poultry
- Low-salt diet
- Avoiding unhealthy fats, such as saturated fats or trans fats
- Avoiding grapefruit and grapefruit juice due to its effect on a group of immunosuppressant medications (calcineurin inhibitors)
- Avoid excessive alcohol
- Drink plenty of water and other fluids
All of these will improve heart transplant recovery.
IMPORTANT: It’s not a diet but it is very important, if you were a smoker before surgery, try never to smoke a single cigarette ever.
Good To Have At Home
There are some tools or equipment that is good to have at home after heart transplant surgery. Check out some of them:
Back To Normal Life
After certain amount of time, you will be able to live your full life again. However, you may not be able to do exact everything as before. Let’s see some areas:
Return To Work
Your doctor will suggest you when it’s time to get back to work. It can be even after only 12 weeks after surgery (depending on your condition). However, there is a chance that you will not be able to get back to your old work if it’s heavy-lifting job where you need to push your body to limits. If that’s the case, try to find another job because it’s important to stay active in your life.
Family and Friends
This may be a stressful time for you, your family and your friends. When you get better, it’s time to talk to your friends and family and discuss about everything. It has been tough period and everybody is happy that you are getting better.
Driving a Car
Usually, it takes about 8-12 weeks for you to be able driving a car. It depends on your condition but always ask doctor before doing something new. Don’t drive fast and avoid quick movements with your steering wheel.
Since you have to intake a lot of medications, side effects may happen. You may feel happy, anxious, irritable, you can have often mood changes. It’s important to speak to your family and discuss about everything so they understand your condition and your needs. Don’t let anything stresses you out.
You may feel uncomfortable about getting back to a sexual activity. If you can not perform these activities without becoming overtired, allow additional recovery time before resuming sexual activity. Don’t worry, in few weeks you will be able to resume activity without any problems. It’s important to talk to your partner, have sex when you are rested, relax and focus on lovemaking, be honest and loving each other.
We hope that now you understand process of your recovery. We gave you some guidelines and general information, but remember, it’s always important to listen to your doctor as every person is different and every person may have different recovery process.
Wish you luck with your heart transplant surgery, and wish you quick heart transplant recovery.
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