Lung Transplant Procedure and Recovery

A lung transplant is a surgical procedure that replaces a diseased or failing lung with a healthy lung from a deceased donor. It is reserved for patients whose conditions have not improved with other medications and treatments.

A lung transplant may involve replacing one or both lungs and in some situations the heart.

Although a lung transplant is a major operation with possible complications, successful outcomes include improved quality of life and an extended lifespan.

During the Procedure

A lung transplant is performed in the hospital under general anesthesia. The patient is asleep and cannot feel pain or discomfort. Tubes are used to help the patient breathe, administer medicines and help with bodily functions.

During the procedure, the surgeon carefully opens the chest and removes the main airway and blood vessels from the lung. The diseased lung is then removed and replaced with a healthy donor lung. The airway and blood vessels are connected to the new lung and the chest is closed.

How Long Does a Lung Transplant Take?

“How long does a lung transplant take?” is a commonly asked question. Total procedure time depends on many factors, including if one or two lungs and the heart are replaced. In general, the procedure can take 6 to 8 hours.

Lung Transplant Recovery After the Procedure

The patient spends 3 to 5 days being closely monitored in the ICU after their surgery. Important components of lung transplant recovery include:

  • Immune-suppressing medications. Doctors prescribe these medications to prevent rejection of the new lung.
  • Physical rehabilitation. A physical therapist helps the patient get out of bed and start walking as soon as medically possible.

Patients are brought to a private room after their stay in the ICU and usually stay there for 2 to 3 weeks before being discharged.

Lung Transplant Recovery After Discharge

The main goal after a lung transplant is to successfully live with the transplanted organ. The two major issues are rejection and infection. Immunosuppressive medications and antibiotics are prescribed to decrease these risks.

Office Visits

A 6 to 8-week period of weekly office visits occurs after discharge. Laboratory work, spirometry (breathing test), and chest X-rays are completed during each visit and their results are analyzed.

Following the initial 6 to 8-week period, office follow-up is every 2 weeks for 6 to 8 weeks and then monthly, depending on their recovery process.

Pulmonary Rehabilitation

The physical and pulmonary condition continues after the transplant to maximize the patient's recovery and help them be more able to accomplish activities of daily living with no or minimal limitations.

Long-Term Health Issues and Complications of Lung Transplant

Immunosuppressive therapy makes patients vulnerable to developing complications from infections. Patients are closely monitored for signs of a potentially serious infection. Early and aggressive treatment can be life-saving.

Additional complications of a lung transplant, usually caused by the side effects of immunosuppressive therapy, include:

  • High blood pressure
  • Kidney injury
  • Weak bones (osteoporosis)
  • Weight gain
  • Diabetes

Medications are available to help manage these problems. A healthy lifestyle, proper diet, exercise, and avoidance of tobacco and alcohol are also important.

Immunosuppressive therapy also makes transplant recipients more prone to developing tumors, cancer and bone loss. Regular yearly checkups to screen for common preventable cancers and/or lung infections or bone loss occur after a transplant.

Outcomes

A lung transplant can improve a person's quality of life and extend their lifespan. It may allow patients to perform tasks without the assistance of supplemental oxygen. Patients require a lot of attention after a lung transplant. The medical team, patients and their families play an important role in recovery. Good communication and compliance lead to improved long-term outcomes.

Learn more about post-lung transplant survival rates and life expectancy.

Patient Stories

  • “It is a gift of life. Everyone in my family is now signed up as an organ donor.”

    Eileen
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  • Cared for by Newark Beth Israel Medical Center’s Advanced Lung Disease, Neonatal and Obstetrics Critical Care Teams

    Fabienne and Nathaniel
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  • “I promised her [granddaughter] that I would make her 6th birthday party and I did. And here it is 5 years later and I'm still here, thanks to the hospital, doctors and everybody else.”

    Robert
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Patient Stories

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