While heart transplant surgery is no easy feat for doctor or patient, it's a surprisingly straightforward operation with high odds of survival and recovery for transplant recipients. This amazing procedure isn't for everyone, but it can extend the lives of patients with congenital heart defects or coronary heart disease.
In 1946 doctors switched the hearts of two canines. In what was likely a surprise to both the doctors and the dogs involved, both "patients" survived.
The first human heart transplant surgery was a success -- almost. While the recipient's new heart worked perfectly, drugs to prevent organ rejection led to pneumonia, killing the recipient 18 days later. The body's understandable wariness about having its heart removed and replaced with one belonging to a stranger was a huge hurdle to increasing the survival rates of heart-transplant patients.
In 1983, a new anti-rejection drug -- cyclosporine -- came onto the scene, and it greatly increased the odds of success for transplant patients. Thanks to this and continuing advances, about 4 in 5 people who undergo the procedure are still alive in two years.
The procedure's certainly no walk in the park, but heart transplant surgery allows a surprising number of people -- about 2,500 a year in the U.S. alone -- the pleasure of many more strolls.