Organ Transplants Explained

An organ transplant is a major surgery that can have amazing, life-sustaining results: a diseased organ is replaced by a healthy organ from a donor. The donor of the organ may be a living donor, possibly a friend or family member, or the organ may be from a donor who suffered a life-ending accident or illness.

In many cases, patients with severe organ failure reach the point where they need to consider organ transplant surgery. An organ transplant is a life-saving procedure, but receiving a new organ is a process, and it can be complicated. Once your physician has made the diagnosis of organ failure, he will need to refer you to an organ transplant center, a medical facility that performs the type of transplant that you require. Transplant centers vary in what types of organ transplants they perform, so the closest center may not be the center to which you are referred.

woman with medical bracelet

PhotoAlto / Ale Ventura

Waiting List

Once you have been referred to a transplant center, the process of evaluating your health and determining if you meet the criteria to be placed on the waiting list for an organ transplant.

If you are listed for transplant, you may want to consider being listed at more than one transplant center. Multiple listings carry additional fees, but in some cases can increase the likelihood of receiving an organ. This is especially true if you are able to be listed at two centers that are in different regions, as the United Network for Organ Sharing divides the United States into geographical areas that play a role in how organs are allocated.

Living Related Organ Donation

In some cases, a family member or friend is both able and willing to provide an organ for transplant. This type of organ donation is called living related organ donation, even though a small percentage of living donors are not related to the person to whom they are donating.

Paying for Organ Transplant Surgery

Part of the process for being placed on the waiting for an organ, or beginning the living related organ donation process is proving that you can afford a transplant, including the surgical procedure, the hospitalization after the surgery and medication and treatment after the procedure. A person does not need to be wealthy in order to afford a transplant, even though the procedure may cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Heart Transplants

Once a patient is diagnosed with severe heart disease that will lead to heart failure, a patient may be considered for a heart transplant. While waiting for a transplant, a patient may have need surgery to place an LVAD, a balloon pump or another Device to Temporarily Improve Heart Function.

Kidney Transplants

Kidney patients are one of the few types of transplant recipients who can receive treatment that replaces the function of the organ that is damaged. Causes of kidney failure vary, but dialysis allows patients in kidney failure to tolerate the wait for an organ. Kidney transplants are by far the most commonly needed and transplanted organ, with over 70,000 people currently waiting for a new kidney.

Pancreas Transplants

The most common reason for a pancreas transplant is type 1 diabetes that is difficult to manage and control. In some patients, insulin, diet, and exercise do not control blood glucose levels, regardless of how diligent the patient is in following the doctor’s instructions. For these patients, a pancreas transplant may be the only solution. In fact, uncontrolled diabetes can lead to kidney damage, so a pancreas transplant may actually prevent the need for a kidney transplant in the future

Liver Transplants

Hepatitis, alcoholism-induced cirrhosis, and idiopathic (non-alcoholic) cirrhosis are among the leading causes of liver failure. For these conditions and many others that cause liver failure, a liver transplant is often the only option for treatment.

Lung Transplants

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is the most common disease process that leads to lung failure and the need for a lung transplant. Lung transplant patients may receive only one lung, or with some conditions such as cystic fibrosis, two lungs may be transplanted.

Multivisceral Organ Transplants

A multivisceral organ transplant is a type of transplant surgery that includes more than one organ, such as a heart/lung transplants, a heart/kidney transplant or a kidney/pancreas transplant.

In pediatric patients, multivisceral transplants are typically heart/lung or a combination that includes a small intestine transplant.

After an Organ Transplant

Coping after an organ transplant isn’t always easy, even though the long-awaited organ transplant has finally happened. There are worries about organ rejection, the side effects of transplant medications like gout and weight gain. There are also very emotional topics like writing the family of the organ donor and considering the future of beloved pets.

Will Your Pet Make You Sick?

Long-term concerns regarding illnesses that can be passed from donor to recipient, such as cytomegalovirus (CMV), cancer, and in extremely rare circumstances, HIV are common among recipients.

Organ recipients may want to find a support group, either through the organ transplant center they use for their healthcare, in their hometown or online. Many recipients struggle with writing a letter to the family of their donor, not being able to find the right words to express their thanks.

Organ recipients should also be aware that they are able to be organ donors, and may want to join the donor registry in their home state.

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  • Transplant Living, a Division of UNOS.

  • UNOS--The United Network For Organ Sharing.

By Jennifer Whitlock, RN, MSN, FN
Jennifer Whitlock, RN, MSN, FNP-C, is a board-certified family nurse practitioner. She has experience in primary care and hospital medicine.