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Saving hearts and lives: A behind-the-scenes look at the heart transplant process

When the transplant team at Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas gets the call about a possible donor heart, many processes and people start moving—quickly. And if multiple calls happen back-to-back, that’s where the team really springs into action.

The heart transplant team has an unwavering focus on giving hope to people living with heart failure. Heart failure—where the heart no longer pumps as it should—affects more than 6 million people in the United States.

Our advanced heart failure team at Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas provides expert care for patients across Texas who are living with heart failure. For many of them, a heart transplant is the only option.

A single heart transplant takes dozens of health professionals working in concert as one well-organized team. This need can happen at any time, often in the middle of the night. For some transplant centers, that one transplant might use up all the available resources.

As one of the top 10 heart transplant programs in the country based on volumes, the team at Baylor University Medical Center can manage multiple heart transplants in a short amount of time. In fact, the center recently transplanted three hearts over the course of a single weekend.

“There’s always a time crunch because transplant has so many moving parts,” said Dan Meyer, MD, chief of heart transplantation and advanced circulatory support at Baylor University Medical Center.“Our team is prepared to get it done without missing a single detail. It’s quite a feat.”

Living with heart failure: When to consider advanced care

What to expect if you need a heart transplant

If you or a loved one is living with heart failure and considering a heart transplant, you likely have many questions about how it works and what to expect. Here’s a glimpse at the road to a heart transplant.

Diagnosis

Long before a patient enters the operating room for a transplant, many coordinated steps have already taken place to make it possible. Ideally, this process starts when you are first diagnosed with advanced heart failure.

“This is a life-changing diagnosis for you and your family,” Dr. Gong said. “That’s why we take a comprehensive approach to heart failure management. You’re a part of the team so you’re involved in making decisions. We will educate you about your options.”

Breaking down the options

For some people, the best option isn’t a transplant at all. As a regional referral center for complex heart conditions, Baylor University Medical Center offers expert care for high-risk patients. The hospital is a leader in left ventricular assist devices (LVADs), which can be used as a bridge to transplant or as a long-term therapy instead of transplant.

Collaboration

When you are referred for a heart transplant, an entire team works together to decide on the next step. The heart transplant evaluation process takes input not only from cardiologists and surgeons but also from behavioral health providers, social workers, transplant coordinators, nurse practitioners, pharmacists, palliative care providers, psychologists and more.

“That is one thing that makes our program great,” Dr. Gong said. “We have a team that tries to incorporate every perspective. We take those factors into play when we come up with the best plan for our patients.”

Preparing for transplant

Once you are accepted for transplant, a team of pre-op nurses, transplant coordinators and other professionals work with both you and your family before surgery. It’s important to make sure you’ll have the support you need before, during and after the transplant.

The transplant

When it’s time for surgery, the team follows evidence-based protocols to help everything flow smoothly. From admitting to the OR to intensive care after surgery, your team works collaboratively and expertly during every step in the process.

Recovery and long-term care

Following a transplant, a heart failure cardiologist and cardiac ICU intensivists are available 24/7 in the hospital. And each patient is followed by the team in the months and years to come—giving you ongoing support and follow-up care, so you’re never alone in this journey.

Building a leading heart transplant program

The transplant team at Baylor University Medical Center has grown from a regional program into a national leader in heart failure and transplants. The hospital was the first center in Texas to perform a heart transplant. Since then, they have completed more than 1,000.

Now, the program’s volumes make it the largest program in Texas. It also has a shorter wait time for heart transplants than others in the region, according to Scientific Registry of Transplant Recipients data.

This growth is due to many factors, including a progressive approach to accepting donors, investments in research trials and innovative technology, and a team that values diverse perspectives. Doctors on the medical staff are also actively involved in national transplant organizations and stay at the forefront of changing guidelines.

Today, donor hearts that were previously considered too unhealthy can be used. Advances in cardiac transport systems and procurement devices help preserve donor hearts longer. For recipients, technologies like temporary mechanical support devices or extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (EMCO) allow doctors to stabilize patients who might otherwise be too sick for a transplant or cannot wait for one.

“Because we see so many patients, we’re more comfortable as a team taking educated risks and accepting patients and donors that other centers can’t,” Dr. Meyer said. “With research into alternative donors, we have access to a broader number of donors we can assess.”

The central location of Dallas in the United States provides an extra advantage. The center has transplanted donor hearts from across the country, from New York to Hawaii.

“We go near and far,” Dr. Gong said. “One of the beauties about Dallas is we are so centrally located that we can go in all directions to get hearts.”  

Innovating the future of heart transplantation

The heart transplant team at Baylor University Medical Center continues to seek out new opportunities for people with heart failure. Along with heart failure cardiologists and transplant surgeons, the center has researchers who work hand in hand with clinicians to advance and improve care for those living with heart failure.

As the future of heart transplantation evolves, this team is fully invested in what’s best for the patient. The transition from a heart failure diagnosis to a heart transplant is a journey, but it’s one you never have to walk alone.

“You can feel confident we have what it takes to make it through the process,” Dr. Meyer said. “In hospital and at home, we’re always there to help. It’s our privilege to shepherd the sacred organ that you’ve been given for the rest of your life.”

Learn more about your heart transplant options today.

Saving hearts and lives: A behind-the-scenes look at the heart transplant process