Advanced or end-stage heart failure is an increasingly frequent sequela of many types of heart disease, as progressively more effective palliation for the earlier stages of heart disease and prevention of sudden death associated with heart disease become more widely recognized and employed (Chap. 19). When patients with end-stage or refractory heart failure are identified, the physician is faced with the decision of advising compassionate end-of-life care or choosing to recommend extraordinary life-extending measures. For the occasional patient who is relatively young and without serious comorbidities, the latter may represent a reasonable option. Current therapeutic options are limited to cardiac transplantation (with the option of mechanical cardiac assistance as a “bridge” to transplantation) or permanent mechanical assistance of the circulation. In the future, it is possible that genetic modulation of ventricular function or cell-based cardiac repair will be options for such patients. Currently, both of the latter approaches are considered to be experimental.
Surgical techniques for orthotopic transplantation of the heart were devised in the 1960s and taken into the clinical arena in 1967. The procedures did not gain widespread clinical acceptance until the introduction of “modern” and more effective immunosuppression in the early 1980s. By the 1990s, the demand for transplantable hearts met, and then exceeded, the available donor supply and leveled off at about 4000 heart transplantations annually worldwide, according to data from the Registry of the International Society for Heart and Lung Transplantation (ISHLT). Subsequently, heart transplantation activity in the United States has remained stable at ~2200 per year, but worldwide activity reported to this registry has decreased somewhat. This apparent decline in numbers may be a result of the fact that reporting is legally mandated in the United States but not elsewhere, and several countries have started their own databases.
Donor and recipient hearts are excised in virtually identical operations with incisions made across the atria and atrial septum at the mid-atrial level (with the posterior walls of the atria left in place) and across the great vessels just above the semilunar valves. The donor heart is generally “harvested” by a separate surgical team, transported from the donor hospital in a bag of iced saline solution, and reanastomosed into the waiting recipient in the orthotopic or normal anatomic position. The only change in surgical technique since this method was first described has been a movement in recent years to move the right atrial anastomosis back to the level of the superior and inferior venae cavae to better preserve right atrial geometry and prevent atrial arrhythmias. Both methods of implantation leave the recipient with a surgically denervated heart that does not respond to any direct sympathetic or parasympathetic stimuli but does respond to circulating catecholamines. The physiologic responses of the denervated heart to the demands of exercise are atypical but quite adequate for continuation of normal physical activity.