When Your Child Needs a Heart Transplant
If your child needs a heart transplant, you’re probably feeling lots of emotions all at once — including anger, sadness, confusion, and frustration. These feelings can become overwhelming, especially when your child is waiting for a new heart.
Fortunately, many kids who undergo heart transplants go on to live normal, healthy lives once they recover from surgery. In the long term, they need to take medications to help prevent complications and undergo regular checkups to monitor heart function.
During this difficult time, the best way to care for your child (and yourself) is to stay informed and keep an open dialogue with your child’s doctor. When appropriate, talk with your child to make sure that he or she understands what is going on and is prepared for the challenges ahead.
About Heart Transplants
A heart transplant is a surgery in which doctors remove a person’s sick heart and replace it with a healthy donor heart.
Transplants in children are performed when a child’s heart does not work properly and he or she won’t survive without a new one. Doctors sometimes refer to this condition as heart failure, or end-stage pediatric heart disease. They usually try to treat heart failure with medicine, surgery, or other procedures before recommending a heart transplant.
When Is a Heart Transplant Needed?
A child’s heart might not work right for many reasons. Sometimes, babies are born with congenital heart defects that cause their hearts to fail. These defects are the main cause of heart transplants in babies.
Certain forms of heart disease, such as cardiomyopathy, also can cause heart failure. Cardiomyopathy happens when the heart muscle does not function well. As a result, the heart cannot pump enough blood to the body. Cardiomyopathy is the main reason that children and teenagers need heart transplants. Some other (less common) reasons that children might need heart transplants include:
- myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle
- abnormal heart rhythms, known as arrhythmias or dysrhythmias
Getting a Healthy Heart
Transplanted hearts come from organ donors — adults and children who have agreed (or their guardians have agreed) to donate their organs in the event of an untimely death. They choose to donate their organs because they want to help someone else who is sick.
Preparing for Surgery
If your child needs a heart transplant, your doctor will refer you to a transplant center, where you’ll meet the members of the transplant team. The team members, who work together to make sure that your child has a successful transplant, probably will include surgeons, cardiologists (heart doctors), a transplant coordinator, nurses, nutritionists, psychologists, social workers, and other health care professionals.
The transplant team will evaluate your child to determine whether a transplant will be beneficial and whether your child is a good candidate for a transplant. The evaluation will include a medical history, a physical examination, and some tests, such as blood tests to determine blood type.
The team probably will perform several other diagnostic tests, which may include:
- an echocardiogram, a test in which sound waves are used to produce an image of the heart
- an electrocardiogram (also known as an ECG or EKG), a test that records the electrical activity of the heart and can help find arrhythmias and heart muscle damage
- cardiac catheterization, a procedure in which a thin, plastic tube called a catheter is inserted into a blood vessel and then threaded through to the heart in order to get an inside glimpse at the heart and its chambers
If the doctors want to examine the heart more closely, they will perform a biopsy, removing a tiny piece of tissue from the heart to examine under a microscope.
The heart transplant evaluation lets the team learn as much about your child as possible. But it’s also a time for you and your child to learn about what will happen before, during, and after the transplant. The transplant team is there to provide information and support, so be sure to ask them questions if you don’t understand something.
Organ Waiting Lists
If the transplant team decides that a heart transplant is the right treatment, your child will be placed on an organ waiting list. This list has the names of all of the people who are waiting for hearts and other organs. As of March 2013, almost 3,500 Americans were on the waiting list for a heart transplant, including about 300 children and teens.
A group called the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS) oversees this list and is in charge of fairly determining who receives the donated organs. Organs are assigned based on how sick a person is and how quickly he or she needs a new organ.
Organs assignments also are based on which person on the waiting list is the best match for the organ donated. That means that the organ is the right size for the person’s body and the donor has the same blood type as the recipient.
Your child might have to wait to find a heart that is a good match. Unfortunately, no one knows how long that wait will be. It could be just a few days or it could be years.
Waiting can be difficult, so consider seeking support from parents whose children have undergone or are awaiting transplants. Many communities have support groups or you can ask your doctor or the hospital social worker for recommendations, or search online.
Getting the Call
When a suitable heart becomes available, your family will be notified by phone or pager and you will need to go to the hospital to have surgery right away. Because this could happen at any time, you should always be prepared.
When you get to the hospital, the transplant team will prepare your child for surgery. They may run a few tests to ensure that the new heart is a good match. Once the team decides that everything is OK, your child will be moved to an operating room.
In the operating room, your child will be given anesthesia to sleep through the surgery and not feel anything. The surgeons will make an incision in the chest and remove the sick heart. They will connect the new heart by sewing its blood vessels to the blood vessels in your child’s body. The new heart will then be placed in the chest. The incision may not be sealed immediately so that doctors can monitor heart function.
Most heart transplant surgeries last between 4 and 6 hours. Someone on the transplant team will keep you informed about how the procedure is going while you wait.
Right after the surgery, your child will be moved to the cardiac intensive care unit (CICU). You will be able to visit your child in the CICU for short periods of time. Your child will receive medication for pain and sedation, and will remain asleep on the ventilator with a breathing tube in place until the doctors determine that the new heart is working well. This may take a few days.
The length of time your child will spend in the CICU will depend on his or her condition. Generally, the stay is 7 to 10 days. When ready, your child will be transferred to the general cardiac ward. The transplant team will continue to care for and closely monitor your child.
Most children stay in the hospital at least 3 to 4 weeks after surgery. During this time, kids and their families learn how to care for the new hearts. Be sure you understand all of the doctors’ instructions because your child will need to follow them carefully.
Your child will be discharged from the hospital when the transplant team agrees that he or she is ready. However, your child will have to return to the hospital many times during the weeks after being discharged so that the doctors can continue to make sure that everything is going well.
One of the most common problems after transplant surgery is rejection. Rejection is the body’s normal reaction to something foreign. Usually, this reaction is beneficial. For example, it’s the way the body defends itself against harmful bacteria and viruses.
In the case of a heart transplant, rejection means that the body doesn’t recognize the new heart and doesn’t know that it is helpful. As a result, the immune system tries to attack it. Medications (called immunosuppressants) help to control this reaction. In a sense, they trick the body into accepting the new organ.
Although the risk of rejection is greatest in the first few weeks after transplant surgery, the body never completely accepts the new heart and so anti-rejection medications must be taken for life. The transplant team will decide which medications are best for your child and these must be taken exactly as instructed.
Anti-rejection medications can cause some unwanted side effects, such as fever, headache, nausea, tiredness, and irritability. Be sure to tell report these and any other reactions to your doctor. Unfortunately, these medications also leave your child vulnerable to certain infections. This risk is greatest right after surgery, and other medications will be given to help reduce the risk. When possible, your child should also avoid people who are sick to lessen the chances of getting an infection.
Usually, the amount of immunosuppressants taken is gradually reduced as the body gets used to the new organ and the risk of rejection decreases. In rare cases, the body refuses to accept the new organ and another heart transplant is necessary.
Living Heart Healthy for Life
Many kids who have heart transplants live normal, healthy lives once they recover from surgery. Some feel better than they ever have before. Since no one can predict how long the new heart will keep functioning, your child will need to do everything possible to keep the heart healthy.
You can help by making sure that he or she follows the medication regimen. Doing so can be difficult, especially at first and for younger kids. Also, monitor your child for signs of infection and rejection, including fever, tiredness, difficulty breathing, vomiting, weight gain, and poor appetite. Immediately contact a doctor if these or any other problems occur. You should also encourage your child to get plenty of exercise and eat well.
In the long term, regular checkups are needed to monitor for complications. At first, these checkups will occur often (perhaps weekly). They gradually become less frequent, though, and eventually may be necessary only once or twice a year.
Reviewed by: Elana Pearl Ben-Joseph, MD
Date reviewed: May 2013