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What Is Piggyback Transplant for Heart Disease Patients?

Posted Aug 19 2009 4:38pm
Before knowing what piggyback transplant is, perhaps it is best to understand a term called cardiomyopathy.

Cardiomyopathy is a serious heart disease in which the heart muscle becomes inflamed and does not work as well as it should. In other words, the functions of the heart muscle are deteriorating. It can be caused by viral infection, heart attack, long-term and severe high blood pressure, alcoholism or other reasons that have not been identified yet. It is common in children in the first year of their life.

Simply replacing the ailing heart with a donor’s heart could not solve the problem. This is because the new heart could not adjust fast enough to handle the excess pressure built up in the lungs and it will fail.

One way the heart surgeon can do is to link the existing heart with a donor’s heart. In this so-called piggyback heart transplant, the surgeon inserts the new heart to the right side of the chest and attaches it parallel to the patient’s own heart. The 2 upper chambers on the left side of each heart must be lined up so that they could be merged.

The risks involved in such operations are similar to the traditional heart transplant, which include immune suppression problems and a chance of chronic rejection.

A British girl, who is now 16, is the world’s first heart transplant patient to recover fully after having her donor’s heart removed and functions restored to her original heart.

When she was 2 in 1995, she underwent a piggyback heart transplant and a new heart was inserted in parallel to her own failing heart. In 2006, she contracted cancer because of the immunosuppressant drugs she was taking to avoid organ rejection and the doctor removed the donor’s heart. At that time, her own heart had recovered sufficiently to work on its own. On July 14, 2009, her doctor reported in the Lancet medical journal that the girl has recovered fully from cancer since the surgery and has a normal cardiac function.

The girl’s success story certainly sparks hope for other patients with heart failure. The success indeed highlights the possibility for the patient’s own heart to make a full recovery if it is given adequate support to do so. Nevertheless, the road to recovery can never be an easy one. At one stage, the girl was forced to take 16 different medications to control her illness.
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