Angie's LIST Guide to
Organ Transplants

Damaged organs make it very difficult to live a normal, healthy life. Fortunately, with today’s modern medicine, tissue, stem cell and organ transplant surgery is an increasingly possible and very feasible option for many candidates.


Organ transplant surgeons
A team of surgeons can successfully transplant organs, such as the liver, kidney and heart. (Photo courtesy of ©Thinkstock)

Overview of organ transplant surgery

An organ transplant is a difficult procedure in which a team of doctors surgically removes an unhealthy organ from a patient's body and replaces it with a new healthy organ. Some organ transplant candidates may have been born with a genetic defect that poses a risk of organ failure. If an organ is injured in a traumatic accident, it may not work properly again. Certain illnesses can also damage organs or cause them to fail prematurely. Examples of such diseases include polycystic kidney disease, cirrhosis of the liver, heart disease and cystic fibrosis.

To date, surgeons can successfully replace organs including the heart, kidneys, liver, lungs, pancreas, intestines and thymus. Doctors can also replace tissues such as bones, tendons, corneas, skin, heart valves and veins. Within the past few years, doctors have conducted successful face transplants.

Bone marrow transplants replace unhealthy stem cells with healthy stem cells in patients with blood disorders, lymphoma, leukemia, genetic diseases and immune system disorders. New stem cells can help to kill cancer cells or help patients recover from chemotherapy or radiation.

Organ donation and procurement

A transplant organ comes from a willing organ donor. In some cases, the donor may be alive and coherent. Living donors are often related to the patients receiving their organs, but as long as the organ is a match, this isn't necessary. Kidneys are the transplanted organs that come most often from living donors, but parts of other organs can be transplanted as well.

Most commonly, donor organs derive from people who recently have been declared brain dead. Voluntary organ donors sign an organ donation form while they are mentally competent. 

Don't worry about your age or medical condition when registering. The transplant team figures out how viable a donor's organs are at the time of death. Despite what some people believe, doctors will work just as hard to save your life when you're sick or injured, whether you're an organ donor or not. Also, organ and tissue donation does not cost the donor family.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, more than 123,900 people need a lifesaving organ transplant, and each day an average of 18 people will die from a shortage of donor organs (in 2014). Eight lives can be saved from just one person's generous gift of his or her organs.

To become a donor, sign up in your state. Once you've registered, be sure to tell your family and doctor, indicate yourself as an organ donor on your driver's license and update your legal documents like your will, advance directives and living will.

You can also become a donor for stem cells through the non-profit National Marrow Donor Program's Be the Match Registry. They connect patients with bone marrow and cord blood donors. Transplanted stem cells can come from the patient's own body, a twin, a donor or umbilical cord. The donor program typically searches for bone marrow donors between the ages of 18 and 44 because the transplanted cells give patients a better chance of survival.

organ transplant waiting list

What organ recipients should expect

Before patients can receive donated organs, they're placed on an organ transplant waiting list. First, though, a patient must choose a transplant hospital. Once selected, they'll schedule a meeting with a transplant team. A team of surgeons and nurses will evaluate the patient's health and mental well-being.

MORE: Visit Angie's List to find a highly rated hospital and transplant surgeon in your area.

Because donated organs are in short supply, the team will choose only organ recipients who they have reason to believe will take care of their new organs. Patients who are unwilling to give up dangerous habits, such as drug abuse, will often not be placed on organ transplant waiting lists.

If the hospital determines a patient is a good transplant candidate, they'll be added to the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network list, which contains the names of everyone in the U.S. waiting on an organ donation.

When you'll recieve an organ depends on a variety of factors, including:

• Urgent need

• Geographical region of the organ donor

• Whether you're a match

• Blood type

• Body size

• Length of time on the waiting list

Patients will want to also meet with the hospital's financial department to discuss insurance benefits, Medicare and Medicaid, along with creating a financial plan. Organ transplant can be pricey and out-of-pocket costs range greatly.

Once an organ becomes available, the transplant team decides that the organ is suitable and the patient is healthy enough to undergo surgery. If so, they will accept the organ and notify the patient immediately. The organ must then be removed from the donor and be transplanted as soon as possible.

After a transplant

After the surgery, patients will need to take it easy for about six weeks or more. There is a real risk the patient's body and immune system will reject the foreign organ. Because of this, the patient receives immunosuppressive or anti-rejection medication immediately. Transplant patients will typically need to take these injections for the rest of their lives.

Many transplant patients will need to alter their lifestyles as well to live a healthy life.

Here are four steps organ recipients need to follow:

• Take prescription medication.

• Avoid alcohol and drugs, including nicotine, as these can put undue strain on the donated organ.

• Stick to a healthy diet and, if their doctors recommend it, a moderate exercise routine.

• Receive regular checkups, which is usually required to make sure that the organ is still working properly.

After a transplant, many patients discover they have more energy, however regular lab tests are required to make sure your body isn't rejecting the organ. During the first few months after a transplant, about 20 percent of patients will endure acute rejection. Doctors can reverse the rejection about 95 percent of the time and save the organ.

Patients must be involved in their health care and maintain a relationship with their health care providers to ensure a successful transplant for years to come. They shouldn't hesitate to talk to their doctors about any health issues they have along the way.


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