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What Happens to Your Body When You Get a Heart Transplant 

Laura Allan
Updated October 19, 2018 24k views 13 items

Few surgeries are a bigger deal than a heart transplant. During a heart transplant, doctors have to open you up, take out your actual heart, and then put a new one in. Naturally, this process can turn deadly. Of course, it's more complicated than that, but few people actually know what happens in a heart transplant. How does your body react? How do doctors keep you alive when you're literally heartless? The details of a heart transplant's impact on your body - as well as how it's done - are as fascinating as they are frightening.

For those wondering if the body can reject a heart transplant, the answer is a resounding yes. There are numerous horror stories of transplants gone wrong, and in the early days of this procedure, death was pretty common. However, the five-year survival rate is now much better than 50/50, which gives those who need the procedure hope. Still, it's pretty taxing on your body in some very gruesome ways.

Without getting too gory, it's worth noting that some of the information here is graphic and not for the faint of heart. But if you're ready to know how a heart transplant is done and how your body responds, read on.

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Your Body Will Go Into Panic
Your Body Will Go Into P... is listed (or ranked) 5 on the list What Happens to Your Body When You Get a Heart Transplant
Photo: Krysten_N/flickr/CC-BY-ND 2.0

The whole time a heart transplant is taking place, your body is going to know that something is going terribly wrong. Even under general anesthesia - even though you're unconscious, and you have a machine working for you - your body can still tell that something invasive is happening inside you. It knows your bones are being broken; it knows someone is cutting you. And it responds by sending a ton of antibodies to the site of the turmoil, and your immune system starts working overtime

In fact, internally, your body starts to hit panic mode and thinks you're sick. It tries to make sure you will not get an infection and that it's ready to fight off any foreign invaders. It also gets ready to prevent you from feeling pain by releasing endorphins. 

They May Electrocute You To Get The New Heart Beating
They May Electrocute You... is listed (or ranked) 6 on the list What Happens to Your Body When You Get a Heart Transplant
Photo: Physio-Control, Inc./flickr/CC-BY 2.0

Once the surgeons decide that the heart is fully attached to you and won't move or come loose, they have to restart the flow of blood. To do this, the surgeons will take you slowly off of the bypass machine and begin restoring the direction of your blood through your new heart. This is done gradually, rather than all at once, and during this period your heart will likely start beating again all on its own. However, sometimes that doesn't happen. Sometimes your heart doesn't remember it's supposed to beat and won't connect with your brain correctly. 

To fix this, surgeons have to use electrical impulses to remind the heart that it has a job to do. They occasionally do that by electrocuting you, or rather directly electrocuting your heart. Luckily, this tends to do the trick, but it's no less of a frightening idea.

You're Going To Be Full Of Tubes For A While
You're Going To Be Full ... is listed (or ranked) 7 on the list What Happens to Your Body When You Get a Heart Transplant
Photo: mallix/flickr/CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

After the doctor has sewn you up, and closed your chest with wires, staples, and sutures, you'll be moved to an ICU for recovery. But be aware: this is anything but a speedy recovery. For one thing, you're going to be pretty much full of tubes. Tubes will be inserted into your veins and body in order to drain blood and fluids from around the heart. You'll have an IV to keep your fluids and blood levels up. And, most importantly, you'll be hooked up to a breathing tube to keep your lungs inflating normally. This may stay in for a few hours - or even several days - and your lungs are not the only parts of you that need tubes.

You'll have a tube that goes into your stomach to remove any excess air that you swallow, at least until your bowels start working normally. You'll even have a tube that helps you relieve yourself of waste. The fact of the matter is, for up to two weeks, you'll be in the hospital and be a patchwork of tubing.

You'll Definitely Feel Some Pain
You'll Definitely Feel S... is listed (or ranked) 8 on the list What Happens to Your Body When You Get a Heart Transplant
Photo: Elfleda/flickr/CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

Let's be clear: a heart transplant hurts. Think about it, your bones get broken; your flesh and muscles get cut; and you have a brand new heart thudding away inside your chest. How could it possibly not hurt? Lucky for you, the doctors know that this pain can persist for days and even weeks, so they'll prescribe you pain medication for the long term and give you pain medication in your IV drip for the short term. This, at least, you can self-administer with the click of a button.