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6 Things to Know About the Heart Transplant Process

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Posted by Val Rakita, MD

The process of receiving a heart transplant is complex. The first vital step is being approved for transplant and getting on the waitlist to receive a donor heart. At Temple Health, our expanded transplant criteria result in more patients being eligible for the donor heart waitlist and helps Temple achieve one of the shortest listing-to-transplant durations — meaning patients get much needed new hearts sooner.

About 5,000 heart transplants occur worldwide each year, often to treat severe heart failure. However, a staggering 50,000 people are in need of a donor heart.

Our expanded waitlist eligibility means that our physicians have the skill to transplant a broader range of patients than most centers. With this expanded eligibility criteria, more Temple patients can be put on the waiting list for the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS).

When I'm meeting with advanced heart failure patients in my cardiology clinic, I always take time to discuss the factors that set Temple's Heart Transplant Program apart — and how we're able to increase the patient's chances for receiving a donor heart. Here are some of the things we talk about.

1. Temple's heart transplant program is one of the most experienced in the country.

Our program is led by best-in-class cardiologists and surgeons who have performed more than 1,300 heart transplants, a number that increases each year. We have a shorter time-to-transplant than the national average, as measured by the Scientific Registry of Transplant Recipients.

2. We offer expanded eligibility criteria.

This means that at Temple, we consider more patients for transplants based on the latest research and our own clinical experience. We perform evaluations for heart transplants in patients who:

  • Are age 74 or younger (70 at other centers)
  • Have a BMI of up to 35
  • Have abstained from alcohol, smoking, or marijuana for a certain time period, based on level of dependency
  • Have had cancer within the last 5 years
  • Are HIV-positive
  • Have pulmonary hypertension
  • Have a history of multiple sternotomies (a surgical incision through the sternum or the middle of the chest)
  • We also evaluate patients for dual organ transplants including heart/kidney, heart/lung, heart/liver

3. We evaluate patients individually.

Many transplant programs determine waitlist eligibility based on whether a patient meets an age cutoff or has certain medical conditions. We take a different approach at Temple. While meeting certain criteria still matters, we know that you can't learn everything about a patient simply by looking at a checklist.

Instead, we meet patients individually and make decisions based on their health history. This involves reviewing their medical history, and performing diagnostic testing and psychological exams to give us a fuller picture.

This approach means that we often accept patients who are turned down at other hospitals.

4. We transplant patients faster.

Temple's Heart Transplant Program has the fastest list-to-transplant time in the region. In fact, 80% of patients listed for transplant at Temple receive a heart within one year, according to the July 2023 report from the Scientific Registry of Transplant Recipients. The national average is just 59.5%.

5. We offer excellent post-op care.

Post-surgery care is just as important as the procedure itself.

Temple's postoperative care helps each patient achieve their best possible health. Patients are monitored closely in the intensive care unit for approximately five days before moving to a recovery room for at least 7-10 days. The clinical team then will recommend continuing recovery at home or at rehab, based on physical therapy needs for the best outcomes.

6. We keep checking in to make sure patients are getting the care they need.

Care for transplant patients continues after they go home. Our transplant coordinators personally check in regularly to help manage medications and get used to everyday life. Having a point person can help reduce the risk for serious complications, such as infection or organ rejection, increasing the odds for long-term transplant success.

Should patients need additional resources, the Temple transplant team is ready to help. We provide support for coping with feelings of fear, anxiety, or depression that can sometimes arise post-surgery. And Temple’s nutritionists are available to help recipients develop dietary plans to take care of your new heart.

In short, we want our heart transplant patients to succeed — and we're with them every step of the way.

To learn more about Temple's Advanced Heart Failure Program or meet with a Temple cardiologist, schedule an appointment or call 800-TEMPLE-MED.

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Val Rakita, MD

Dr. Rakita is a cardiologist who specializes in advanced heart failure. With clinical interests in mechanical circulatory support and heart transplantation, he is also Assistant Professor of Medicine at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University. Dr. Rakita is a member of the Heart Failure Society of America and the American College of Cardiology.

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