Heart Transplantation Recovery

After a heart transplant, the length of time the patient will stay in the hospital varies based on the patient’s individual needs. Most patients stay in the hospital for one to two weeks.

Before they leave the hospital, patients will learn about medications, diet, activities and follow-up care. After they go home, patients continue to have follow-up care. This care focuses on:

  • Understanding side effects of medications
  • Preventing organ rejection and infection
  • Promoting a heart healthy lifestyle

Heart Transplantation Surgery and Life Expectancy

Patients with advanced heart failure have severely shortened lives without a heart transplant.

Life expectancy after a heart transplant has greatly improved over the years. Up to 9 in 10 patients who have a heart transplant live at least one year, and more than 5 in 10 survive at least 10 years. These patients also have excellent quality of life.

Possible Complications of Heart Transplantation

The Heart Transplant Program at Northwestern Memorial Hospital closely follows patients to lessen complications. Below are some common complications from heart transplant.

Acute Organ Rejection

Patients may have at least one acute organ rejection episode in the first year after surgery.

The immune system plays a role in acute organ rejection. White blood cells in the body recognize what is part of the body and what is foreign to the body. White blood cells protect the body from foreign invaders, identify the donor heart as foreign and attempt to attack and destroy it.

Anti-rejection medication helps reduce this immune response. Patients will take this medication for the rest of their lives. This helps prevent organ rejection.

Patients usually do not have symptoms of acute organ rejection. To monitor for this, the care team will do heart biopsies often.

During a heart biopsy a small piece of heart tissue is removed and examined for white blood cells. The presence of white blood cells indicates organ rejection.

Usually, an interventional cardiologist does a heart biopsy in a cardiac catheterization laboratory. It is an outpatient procedure, so the patient does not normally need to stay in the hospital overnight.

Treatment for rejection includes:

  • Increasing the dose or frequency of the current anti-rejection medication
  • Changing to a new anti-rejection medication
  • Adding additional medication to reduce the immune response


Anti-rejection medication makes it harder for the immune system to fight an infection. That’s why patients have a higher risk for infection.

After having a heart transplant, patients must understand the symptoms of infection. That will help them identify an infection early and know when to call their care team.

Chronic Organ Rejection

After a heart transplant, patients can develop a unique type of coronary artery disease. The coronary artery vessel walls can become thick. This makes it hard for oxygen-rich blood to flow properly to the heart muscle. This is called chronic organ rejection.

Chronic organ rejection is common. It usually occurs more than one year after the heart transplant.

To reduce the risk of having severe chronic organ rejection, patients need to:

  • Take anti-rejection medication
  • Eat a low-fat diet
  • Exercise

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: