Lung transplant may be an option for some people with end-stage chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) who have tried every other avenue of treatment. Lung transplants may involve one (single-lung transplantation) or two (bilateral lung transplantation) lungs harvested from an organ donor who has died recently. The donor must be a good genetic match in order to avoid organ rejection. The donor must also be located within your region.
There are extensive criteria for becoming a candidate for lung transplant in addition to the severity of your disease. Most lung transplant candidates have experienced decline in their conditions despite closely following a medical regimen, participating in pulmonary rehabilitation, and undergoing other surgical interventions. Ideal candidates are under 65 years of age, in good cardiovascular and general health, have a healthy weight, and do not smoke or have a drug or alcohol addiction. Candidates must be mentally stable and committed to working toward recovery after the transplant. Preference is given to those with family members and community who will help support them during recovery.
What does it involve?
In order to evaluate your candidacy, your doctor will perform several exams such as breathing tests, blood tests, heart function tests, cancer screenings, and imaging scans. Your psychological status may also be evaluated. Do not be afraid to ask questions about any aspect of the surgery or recovery.
Once you are approved as a candidate for lung transplant, you may be enrolled in a comprehensive preoperative pulmonary rehabilitation program in order to prepare you for the surgery, speed your recovery and avoid complications. While you are on the waiting list, follow the diet plan, exercise recommendations, and drug regimen give to you by your transplant team. Do not smoke, and limit your consumption of alcoholic beverages to one or two per day. Being in top condition for surgery will make recovery easier. Remember, you never know when lungs may become available.
When the transplant team notifies you that lungs have become available, you will be given instructions to stop eating a few hours before surgery. When you arrive at the hospital, vital signs will be taken, blood will be drawn for testing, and other tests may be performed on your heart and lungs. Be sure to let your transplant team know every type of medicine and supplement you have been taking, even over-the-counter medications. Also tell them if you have been drinking alcohol. When it is time for the surgery, you will receive an intravenous (IV) line and anesthetic medication to make you sleep.
Different techniques are used for lung transplant surgery depending on whether you are receiving a single-lung or bilateral lung transplant. If you are receiving a single-lung transplant, the surgeon will likely choose to perform a thoracotomy, or single incision on the side of your chest where the lung will be transplanted. If you are receiving a bilateral lung transplant, the surgeon may either perform an anterior thoracotomy or a transverse sternotomy. In an anterior thoracotomy, two incisions are made in the front of your chest, one below each breast. In a transverse sternotomy, one long incision is made from the left side to the right side of your chest, just below your breasts. During the surgery, you may be ventilated via cardiopulmonary bypass – a machine that breathes and pumps your blood for you – or using your remaining lung.
When the donor lungs arrive, your diseased lungs will be removed. The new lungs will be attached to your body in three ways. First, the main bronchus, or airway, of the donor lung will be attached to your bronchus. Next, the blood vessels are attached, then the pulmonary artery and pulmonary vein. Once the new lungs are attached, blood flow will be restored. Finally, the surgeon will close the incisions.
When you wake up after surgery, you will likely be attached to several tubes. You may have one or more tubes in your chest to drain fluids as you heal. You will have a breathing tube, an IV for fluids and medicines, and possibly an epidural in your spine to deliver pain medication. You will have a catheter to drain your bladder. The breathing tube may be removed when you awaken, but the other tubes will likely remain in place for one or more days as you recover. You can expect to spend one to three weeks in the hospital recovering from lung transplant surgery. The first few days of your stay may be spent in the intensive care unit.
A nurse or doctor will explain how to care for your wound or wounds before you leave the hospital. It may take as long as six months to recover fully from lung transplant surgery. The transplant team may ask you to remain close to the hospital for three months after surgery for frequent checkups. You can expect to continue regular checkups with blood tests and x-rays for the rest of your life in order to monitor your condition.
In the right candidate, a lung transplant can improve breathing, lung function, and quality of life.
Lung transplants have been found to provide benefits for those with end-stage COPD for at least three to four years after surgery. The long-term benefits have not been studied.
The mortality rate for lung transplants is five to 15 percent within the first 30 days after surgery.
The cumulative five-year survival rate for lung transplant recipients is 50 percent. According to some studies, lung transplant provides no survival benefit over remaining on the waiting list.
Survival rates may be greater (66.7 percent versus 44.9 percent) with bilateral transplants than with single-lung transplants.
Wait time for a lung transplant is often one to three years.
Any surgery carries risks including blood clots, blood loss, infection, breathing problems, reactions to medication, and heart attack or stroke during the surgery.
Possible complications of lung transplant surgery include rejection, diabetes, high blood pressure, and bronchiolitis obliterans syndrome (BOS). BOS, which damages and destroys the
small airways in the lung, occurs in 50 percent of lung transplants within five years of surgery, and can be fatal. BOS is also known as chronic rejection.
You will need to take immunosuppressants for the rest of your life to prevent your body from rejecting the lung transplant. This medication also causes many side effects including suppression of the immune system, raising your risk for contracting serious infections.
Lung transplant surgery can be painful, and you will most likely need pain medication for some weeks during recovery. Conversely, some nerves may be cut during surgery, causing loss of sensation.
Call your doctor immediately if you notice signs of infection such as swelling, redness, increased pain, or bleeding from the surgical wound.
Lung Transplant for COPD - Topic Overview – WebMD
Lung transplant in end-staged chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) patients: a concise review – Journal of Thoracic Disease
Managing COPD: Lung transplants – Respiratory Health Association
Surgical Interventions for COPD – Medscape
Learn About Lung Transplants – Emory Healthcare
Lung transplant – MedlinePlus