Organ transplant: Replacing diseased organs with healthy ones
Organ transplant: Replacing diseased organs with healthy ones
Organ transplant — Understand the challenges before beginning this lifesaving journey.
If your doctor says you need an organ transplant, the news may not come as a complete surprise. Although a sudden health crisis can result in the need for a transplant, it's more likely you've experienced declining health for some time.
Before deciding on an organ transplant, consider the many steps an organ entails — from waiting for a donor organ and having the surgery to post-surgical recovery and the life-long medical regimen you'll need to follow.
The organ shortage: How limited supply affects your outcome
With many diseases and conditions, your doctor will prescribe medication, recommend lifestyle changes or schedule you for surgery or a procedure. As a result, you'll probably follow your doctor's recommendations and your condition will most likely improve.
But if you need an organ transplant, the process might not go as smoothly — you may not necessarily get the transplant. The primary reason for this is because there aren't enough donated organs for everyone who needs one.
In any given year, approximately 25,000 to 30,000 organ transplants are performed. Yet on any given day, at least 90,000 people in the United States are waiting for a donor organ. New names are added to the waiting list every day.
Steps to take to begin the organ transplant process
If you decide to undergo an organ transplant, you must follow several steps:
Waiting for an organ transplant
The amount of time you spend on the organ transplant waiting list can vary from minutes to months or years. Not knowing when or if a donor organ will become available can be very stressful. Talk to members of your organ transplant team if you need help coping with the wait. Members of your team can help you develop strategies to ease your anxiety.
How donor organs and organ transplant candidates are matched
When organs are donated, medical characteristics of the organs are entered into a national computer database. This database — maintained by the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS) — is part of a national system designed to ensure the equitable distribution of donated organs in the United States.
UNOS matches organs to those with an urgent need for a transplant. Transplant candidates and donor organs are checked for matching blood types. Depending on the organ involved, other factors may include the size and condition of the organ and the recipient's health and ability to get to the transplant hospital quickly. Some preferential treatment is given to children.
Because organs are viable for only a short time after removal, the organ transplant team has just a short amount of time to decide if a donor organ is suitable for the selected candidate. During this time, the transplant team may perform a test to determine whether the organ transplant recipient's immune system will attack the donor organ in an unusually aggressive manner. If the results are favorable and the candidate is available and well enough to undergo surgery, the organ transplant can proceed.
If the organ isn't right for the first candidate, the organ is offered to the next matching candidate on the list. When a match is found, the organ is retrieved from the donor and the surgical procedure takes place.
Which organs can be transplanted?
You may need one organ or you might need more than one, depending on your disease and health status. Kidneys, pancreases, livers, hearts, lungs and intestines can be transplanted. Intestinal transplants are rare, however, and short- and long-term results aren't as good as those of other types of transplants.
Conquering organ transplant rejection: A lifelong battle
Your body comes equipped with an immune system ready to attack and destroy any substance your body considers foreign, such as bacteria, viruses — or a transplanted organ. Organ rejection occurs when your immune system begins to attack the transplant organ. Rejection can occur at any time after an organ transplant procedure but most often occurs within the first few weeks or months.
Finding the right balance
You'll need to follow a lifelong regimen of drug therapy after an organ transplant to prevent your body from rejecting the new organ. While these medications may have potential risks and side effects, usually they're well tolerated and are necessary to preserve the viability of your transplant.
You'll likely require a combination of two or more immunosuppressants. These drugs — all of which have side effects — may include:
Follow the rules for organ transplant success
Stay vigilant: Be on guard against signs of trouble
A healthy lifestyle — which includes a healthy diet, exercise, maintaining a healthy weight, not smoking and limited or no alcohol use — can be crucial to post-transplant success.
You must also be on the lookout for signs that something more serious is going on, and take measures to guard against their occurrence. Work with your doctor to address these common problems:
Elevated cholesterol and hypertension
With challenges come rewards
The first few months after your organ transplant may be difficult. You'll likely be taking a large number of new medications — many requiring frequent adjustments in dosage — and you may be dealing with various medication side effects. You'll also be recovering from a major surgical procedure, and you may be at particularly high risk of developing some kind of infection.
There may be times after the organ transplant when you feel like you've simply traded one set of health problems for another. But weighed against these potential risks and hardships is the prospect of renewed health and life. The majority of organ transplant recipients enjoy many years of improved health that would have been impossible without the transplant.
As you recover and your drug regimen stabilizes and becomes less intense, you'll likely feel stronger and healthier than you've felt in years. Living with an organ transplant is likely to be a continuing challenge. However, there's a good chance your organ transplant will enable you to live a full and active life.
Last Updated: 12/15/2005
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