The first operation is harvesting the heart from the donor. The donor is usually an unfortunate person who has suffered irreversible brain injury, called "brain death". Very often these are patients who have had major trauma to the head, for example, in an automobile accident. The victim's organs, other than the brain, are working well with the help of medications and other "life support" that may include a respirator or other devices. A team of physicians, nurses, and technicians goes to the hospital of the donor to remove donated organs once brain death of the donor has been determined. The removed organs are transported on ice to keep them alive until they can be implanted. For the heart, this is optimally less than six hours. So, the organs are often flown by airplane or helicopter to the recipient's hospital.
The second operation is removing the recipient's damaged heart. Removing the damaged heart may be very easy or very difficult, depending on whether the recipient has had previous heart surgery (as is often the case). If there has been previous surgery, cutting through the scar tissue may prolong and complicate removal of the heart.
The third operation is probably the easiest; the implantation of the donor heart. Today, this operation basically involves the creation of only five lines of stitches, or "anastomoses". These suture lines connect the large blood vessels entering and leaving the heart. Remarkably, if there are no complications, most patients who have had a heart transplant are home about one week after the surgery. The generosity of donors and their families makes organ transplant possible.
Ventricular assist device: A mechanical pump that takes over the function of the damaged ventricle of the heart and restores normal blood flow.
Left ventricular assist devices (LVADs) were originally developed for patients with heart disease from which they were not expected to recover and who needed mechanical support as a bridge to a heart transplant. LVADs were then used in patients with heart failure who needed ventricular assistance to allow the heart to rest and recover its function. This permitted a meaningfully longer survival and an improved quality of life. LVADs also provide an alternative treatment for patients with advanced heart failure who are not candidates for cardiac transplantation.