Lung Transplantation Recovery

The survival rate for lung transplant patients is improving, with nearly 80 percent of lungs still functioning after one year and more than 50 percent after five years.

We will provide you with the most recent results from Northwestern Memorial Hospital as listed in the Scientific Registry of Transplant Recipients (SRTR). You also can go to the SRTR website to view results from Northwestern Memorial, as well as from all other transplant centers in the United States. This database is updated every six months.

Recovering from lung transplantation surgery

After lung transplantation surgery, you will likely be in the Intensive Care Unit for several days, as your transplant team* monitors your oxygen levels and other vital signs. You will have a breathing tube linked to a ventilator for several hours, or until the team is confident that you can breathe comfortably on your own. You will remain in the hospital for at least a couple of weeks after surgery.

Once you are home, you will participate in a variety of activities as you heal:

  • Respiratory therapy to build up cardiopulmonary strength
  • Physical therapy to build body strength
  • Nutritional counseling to avoid weight gain associated with anti-rejection medications
  • Psycho-social counseling
  • Outpatient testing, including:

About rejection

A major concern after transplant surgery is the risk of organ rejection. The lungs have the highest rate of rejection of all transplanted organs.

Rejection happens when your body stops accepting your new organ. When this occurs, your immune system attacks your new lung, as if it does not belong in your body. This triggers your body to make white blood cells and antibodies, which reduce the blood flow to the lung, can damage the new lung or limit how well it works.

Acute (sudden and severe) rejection often happens in the first several months after transplant. But rejection can occur at any time. The donated lung always retains its original identity. You will need to take anti-rejection medicines for the rest of your life. Failure to do so always will lead to rejection and organ failure.

Watch for signs of rejection:

  • A temperature above 100.50 F
  • Pain or tenderness over the transplant site
  • Feeling like you have the flu
  • Chest pain

If you notice any of these signs, you must call the Transplant Clinic right away. This allows treatment to begin quickly to help you have the best outcome. Rejection is confirmed with blood work and a needle biopsy of the lung. This biopsy will be done via a bronchoscope, a thin, flexible tube that’s passed down your throat and into your lungs.

Many times, rejection can be detected only by lab tests. You may not have symptoms at all. That’s why it’s very important that you have routine blood tests as directed by your Transplant Team. We want to detect rejection before you have any symptoms. This allows needed tests and treatment to begin right away.


Anti-rejection medicines limit the action of your white blood cells (WBCs). WBCs help your body fight infection. When you take anti-rejection medicines you have an increased risk for infection. It is very important that you try to prevent infection and watch for signs of infection.

Call the transplant nurse coordinator right away (day or night) if you have:

  • A temperature above 100.5°F
  • Nausea, vomiting or diarrhea (more than 4 watery or very loose stools) for more than 24 hours
  • Redness or tenderness around your incision
  • Anything other than red-tinged clear drainage from your incision

Call the transplant nurse coordinator during clinical hours if you have:

  • A productive cough that lasts more than 2 days
  • A sore throat or mouth sores
  • Pain or burning while urinating
  • Cloudy urine or a feeling of urgency to urinate

Follow these important but simple steps to help prevent infection:

  • Avoid contact with persons who have a cold or flu or other illness.
  • Keep your vaccines up to date. Remember that you cannot have vaccines with live viruses. Ask your transplant physician or nurse coordinator to make sure any vaccine is okay.
  • Get a flu shot every year and a pneumovax shot every five years.
  • Practice good hand washing, which means:
    • Wash your hands for 30 to 60 seconds using soap and warm water. Scrub all areas, including between the fingers, under the fingernails and around the nail beds.
    • You can also use alcohol-based hand rubs and wash for 20 seconds.
    • Use plain soap and water for visibly dirty hands.
    • Use alcohol-based hand-rubs when your hands are not visibly dirty.
    • Always wash your hands when visibly soiled, after you use the bathroom, and before and after you eat.

Just like everyone else, you will get colds and the flu. Your immune system should be able to fight these common infections and you should recover normally. Also, the risk of infection becomes less as your anti-rejection medicines are decreased over time.

Related Resources


The Northwestern Medicine Lung Transplant Program


  • American Lung Association: This organization is working to save lives by improving lung health and preventing lung disease through research, education and advocacy.
  • American Society of Transplantation: This website’s Patient Information section offers a number of resources for transplant patients.
  • Coalition on Donation: The organization promotes organ donation and provides education about it.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI): This division of the National Institutes of Health offers information about the lung transplantation process.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

In the spirit of keeping you well-informed, some of the physician(s) and/or individual(s) identified are neither agents nor employees of Northwestern Memorial HealthCare or any of its affiliate organizations. They have selected our facilities as places where they want to treat and care for their private patients.