A lung transplant is a major surgery to replace a diseased or failing lung with a healthy lung from a donor. Most lungs that are used in transplants come from organ donors who have recently died. A lung transplant is usually the last resort for people who have tried medications or other treatments, but their conditions did not improve. The transplant may involve replacing one of your lungs, or both, depending on your medical condition.
Damaged or diseased lungs can make it difficult to get vital oxygen to the organs and tissues in your body. This may not only affect your quality of life, but it can also be fatal. A lung transplant can improve the quality of life and extend the lifespan for people who have severe lung conditions. These conditions may include:
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
- Scarring of the lungs (also known as pulmonary fibrosis)
- Cystic fibrosis
- Pulmonary hypertension
- Sarcoidosis [sar-koy-DOE-sis]
- Severe bronchiectasis [brong-kee-EK-tuh-sis]
In some cases, people with severe heart and lung conditions may receive both a heart and lung transplant.
Not everyone is a candidate for a lung transplant. Your doctor will discuss whether you are a candidate for a lung transplant or not. There are factors that may prevent you from receiving a lung transplant. These factors include:
- Current infection
- Recent history of cancer
- Serious diseases such as heart, kidney, or liver diseases
- Unwilling or unable to make lifestyle changes to keep your donor lung healthy after the transplant
If you are healthy and are a candidate for a lung transplant, you will likely be placed on an organ transplant wait list. If a match is found, you will have a lung transplant immediately.
A lung transplant is a major operation. Complications from the surgery are often fatal. The most serious risks associated with a lung transplant include the following:
Organ rejection. Your immune system will try to attack and reject your new lung. You will take medication to help prevent your immune system from rejecting the new lung or lungs. You will have to take this medication for the rest of your life.
Post-surgical infections. The anti-rejection medications will suppress your immune system. This will make your body more vulnerable to infections. In rare cases, these infections may be life-threatening.
Other risks associated with lung transplant surgery include:
- Blood clots
- Increased risk for cancer, diabetes, and kidney damage from anti-rejection medications
A lung transplant can improve the quality of life and extend the lifespan for people who have severe lung conditions.
If a match is found, you will immediately be sent to the hospital to prepare for the transplant. Since this call could come at any time, it is important to have a bag already packed for your hospital stay. Keep in mind; it may take months or even years to find a match.
When a match is found, you will be given instructions on where to go. Once you arrive at the hospital, you will likely have lab work and a physical exam to ensure you are healthy enough for the surgery.
A lung transplant will be performed in an operating room at a hospital that is accredited to perform organ transplants. Here is what happens during the procedure:
- Monitoring lines will be attached to you so your surgeon and anesthesiologist can monitor your heartbeat, blood pressure and breathing during surgery.
- A nurse will place an IV (intravenous) line into a vein to give you medicine and fluids during and after the surgery.
- You will be given anesthesia (medicine that will allow you to sleep through the procedure).
- Once the anesthesia is administered, your surgical team will place a breathing tube in your windpipe to help you breathe during the surgery.
- While you are asleep, you may be put on a heart-lung machine. This machine will act like your lungs by pumping and oxygenating your blood for you during the transplant.
- The surgeon will make a large incision (cut) in your chest.
- The surgeon will carefully remove the diseased or damaged lung or lungs from your body.
- The new lung is then connected to your main airway and blood vessels in your chest.
- The surgical team will carefully watch the function of the new lung or lungs for a certain amount of time. Once the new lung is working properly, the incision will be closed.
A typical lung transplant may take anywhere from 4 to 12 hours.
Once you are awake, your surgeon will discuss the results of your lung transplant with you.
You will likely be in the hospital for a few weeks after the transplant. While you are in the hospital, your surgeon will monitor you for any signs of organ rejection. It is very important you carefully follow your doctor’s instructions with your anti-rejection medications.
Recovery from a lung transplant will take several weeks to months. You will be given medication to help you manage your pain. Once you are discharged, you will have regular appointments with your lung transplant team. This team will look for signs of rejection or other problems from the lung transplant. It is important that you keep these appointments.