Heart Transplant | What to expect | MedStar Health

Regional leaders in heart transplantation and transplant recovery

Heart failure can progress to the point where your heart is no longer able to pump enough blood for your body. A heart transplant allows us to replace your failing heart with a healthier heart from a donor. Your doctor may recommend a heart transplant if other heart failure treatments have been unsuccessful.

The first heart transplant in Washington, D.C., was performed at our Advanced Heart Failure Center in 1987. Our program has since performed more than 250 heart transplants. We are one of five programs nationwide that are researching noninvasive methods to assess patients for the potential of heart transplant rejection. Our team of coordinators will work with you and your family to prepare and support you through the transplantation process and recovery.

Preparing for a transplant

What to expect as you prepare for a transplant

We perform a thorough medical and psychosocial evaluation, including blood tests and imaging studies, to make sure you will benefit from a heart transplant. You will meet with several members of the transplant team, including the coordinator, surgeons, cardiologists, social workers, and financial counselors.

If heart transplantation is a good option for you, we’ll place your name on the national waiting list for a suitable donor heart. The wait time to receive a heart can be lengthy, and you may be admitted to the hospital while you wait for a heart.

You may need a combination of therapies while you are waiting for a new heart, which may include:

What to expect when a donor heart becomes available

A MedStar surgeon performs heart surgery at MedStar Washington Hospital Center.

The transplant coordinator will contact you and get you admitted for surgery right away. In the operating room, we’ll place you under general anesthesia, and we’ll connect you to a ventilator to breathe for you during the operation. The surgery typically takes around six hours.

Your surgeon will make an incision in your chest and will separate your breastbone to access your heart. Tubes will be connected to your blood vessels that will pump your blood using a bypass machine. Your doctor will then remove your failing heart and replace it with the donor heart. Once the donor heart is in place, the surgeon will disconnect the bypass machine and shock your heart so it will start beating. The surgeon may place a temporary pacemaker to regulate your heartbeat during initial recovery and connect tubes to your chest to drain excess fluid. Then the surgeon will close your incision and cover it with a bandage.

After surgery, you will be taken to our cardiac intensive care unit. Our nurses have special training and expertise in caring for heart transplant patients, and you will be monitored by our cardiac intensivist doctors, surgeons, and cardiologists. You will remain on the ventilator until you are able to breathe on your own, which may take several days.

Your recovery time will depend on your medical condition and how you respond to the transplant. Your care team will work with you to get you home as soon as you are healthy enough.

Living with a donor heart

After your transplant, you will need regular follow-up visits. During these visits, your doctor may perform heart biopsiesechocardiograms, and lab tests. You will be prescribed lifelong anti-rejection medications that will help your body adjust to and accept your new heart.  


Advanced heart failure

Advanced heart failure is a form of heart failure that has progressed to the most serious stage.

Arrhythmogenic right ventricular cardiomyopathy (ARVC)  

Arrhythmogenic right ventricular cardiomyopathy (ARVC) is a rare genetic abnormality of the heart muscle.

Restrictive cardiomyopathy

Restrictive cardiomyopathy is a stiffening of the heart’s two lower chambers, the ventricles, which prevents them from expanding properly as they fill with blood.

Sarcoidosis (cardiac)

Sarcoidosis causes lumps to form in your heart, lungs, or lymph nodes and can damage these organs.


Angiogram (Angiography)

An angiogram is a special X-ray taken as a special dye is injected through a thin, flexible tube called a catheter to detect blockages or aneurysms in blood vessels. 

Chest X-ray
Chest X-rays use a small dose of radiation to create pictures of the structures inside the chest, including the lungs, heart, and chest wall.

Computerized Tomography (CT) Scan

The cardiac computed tomography scan, or cardiac CT, uses X-rays to create three-dimensional images of your heart and blood vessels.


An echocardiogram uses high-frequency sound waves to create images of your heart.

Electrocardiogram (ECG)

An electrocardiogram, also known as an ECG, measures the heart’s electrical activity. 

Heart Biopsy

In a heart biopsy, your doctor will remove small samples of your heart muscle tissue to monitor heart function or diagnose a problem.

Stress Tests

Stress tests are used to assess how your heart works during physical activity. There are several types of stress tests, including treadmill or bike stress tests, nuclear stress tests, stress echocardiograms, and chemically induced stress tests.

Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI)

Magnetic resonance imaging, better known as cardiac MRI, is a combination of radio waves, magnets, and computer technology to create images of your heart and blood vessels.

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MedStar Washington Hospital Center

110 Irving St. NW
Washington, DC 20010

Additional information

Advanced heart failure program

Partner with leaders in the field to manage and treat your heart failure and help you maximize your quality of life.

Ask MedStar Heart & Vascular Institute

Have general questions for our heart and vascular program? Email us at AskMHVI@medstar.net. If you have clinically-specific questions, please contact your physician’s office.