Heart Transplantation Recovery

Hospital stays following heart transplantation are tailored to your individual recovery. Most patients remain in the hospital for 1-1/2 to 2 weeks after heart surgery.

The Heart Transplant Program at Northwestern Memorial Hospital teaches you about medications, diet, activities, exercise plans and follow-up care before discharging you from the hospital. After returning home, you’ll continue to see your cardiologist for care that focuses on managing side effects of medications, preventing rejection and infection and promoting a heart healthy lifestyle.

After heart transplantation, the goal is for you to return to a life that is free from the symptoms of heart failure. We’ll help you regain a more normal lifestyle, including activities you couldn’t do when you had advanced heart failure. Many patients return to work, while others choose to retire.

Heart transplantation surgery and life expectancy

During heart transplantation, your diseased or sick heart is surgically removed and replaced with a healthy donor heart. Life expectancy after heart transplantation has improved dramatically over the years. While patients with advanced heart failure have severely shortened lives because of heart disease, those who undergo heart transplantation may have as much as a 90 percent 1-year survival, and 55 percent 10-year survival—with excellent quality of life.

Potential complications of heart transplantation

The Heart Transplant Program at Northwestern Memorial Hospital closely follows patients to minimize post-surgical complications. Common complications include:

Acute rejection

You may experience at least one acute rejection episode in the first year after surgery. The immune system plays a role in acute organ rejection. White blood cells in your body recognize what is part of the body and what is not. These cells protect the body from foreign invaders. When you receive a donor heart, your white blood cells will attempt to attack the donor heart and destroy it.

You will take anti-rejection medication for the rest of your life to help prevent chronic rejection, as well as additional medication to treat acute rejection.

Most of the time, acute rejection does not cause any outward symptoms, so it is necessary to monitor you using heart biopsies. We routinely perform outpatient heart biopsies in our cardiac catheterization laboratory.


Heart transplantation patients have increased risk for infection because of the anti-rejection medicines they must take. Anti-rejection medicines decrease your immune system's ability to fight an infection, so we teach you the symptoms of infection so you can identify an infection early, notify your physician and receive appropriate treatment.

Chronic rejection

After heart transplantation, the heart can develop a unique type of coronary artery disease. The coronary artery vessel walls become thicker, making it more difficult for oxygen-rich blood to flow properly to the heart muscle. This is called chronic rejection.

Chronic rejection is fairly common and usually occurs more than one year after surgery. Although most patients do not experience angina (chest pain) with chronic rejection, it is possible. Eating a low-fat diet, exercising, taking anti-rejection medicines, aspirin and other medications as prescribed may help reduce the risk of developing severe chronic rejection. We monitor coronary artery disease using cardiac catheterization or other imaging studies.

Medications after heart transplantation

The most important medications you will take after heart transplantation are anti-rejection medications. For a few months after heart transplantation, your physician may reduce the amount of anti-rejection medications you take to reduce the risk of infection.

Meet the Heart Transplant Team

Northwestern Medicine Bluhm Cardiovascular Institute is a nationally recognized destination for those who require highly specialized cardiovascular care.
Meet the Team
Downtown Chicago

Related Resources


  • Coalition on Donation: The organization promotes organ donation and provides education about it.
  • MedlinePlus: This is a trusted source that covers all aspects of organ donation and provides easy access to medical journal articles, extensive information about drugs, an illustrated medical encyclopedia, interactive patient tutorials and the latest health news.
  • Mended Hearts Chicago: Mended Hearts is a national nonprofit organization that has offered the gift of hope to heart disease patients, their families and caregivers for 60 years.
  • National Organ and Tissue Donation Initiative: The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is undertaking this initiative to ease the critical shortage of organ and tissue donors by building a national community of organ sharing.
  • United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS): Through the UNOS Organ Center, organ donors are matched to waiting recipients 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Through its policies, UNOS ensures that all patients have a fair chance at receiving the organ they need—regardless of age, sex, race, lifestyle, religion, or financial or social status. UNOS members include every transplant program, organ procurement organization and tissue typing laboratory in the United States.
  • Gift of Hope Organ and Tissue Donor Network: Website of the not-for-profit organ procurement organization that works with hospitals and donor families in the northern three-fourths of Illinois and northwest Indiana. The organization is responsible for the recovery of organs and tissue for medical transplantation in the service area, as well as for professional and public education on organ and tissue donation.
  • Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network (OPTN): OPTN is a unique public-private partnership that links all of the professionals involved in the donation and transplantation system. Its goals are to increase the supply of donated organs available for transplantation and the effectiveness and efficiency of the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS).
  • Transplant Living: This is the United Network for Organ Sharing patient education site for all transplant patients.
  • TransWeb: TransWeb's mission is to provide information about donation and transplantation to the general public to promote organ donation and to provide transplant families with information dealing specifically with transplant issues.
  • U.S. Transplant—Scientific Registry of Transplant Recipients (SRTR): The SRTR supports the ongoing evaluation of the scientific and clinical status of solid organ transplantation in the United States.

Support groups

The following associations have support groups available to help patients and their families through a transplantation: