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What To Expect After a Lung Transplant

Recovery in the Hospital

After lung transplant surgery, you'll go to the hospital's intensive care unit (ICU) for at least several days. The tubes that were inserted before surgery will remain for a few days.

The tube in your windpipe helps you breathe. Other tubes deliver medicines to, and drain fluids from, your body. You also will have sticky patches called electrodes attached to your chest to monitor your heart.

After leaving the ICU, you'll go to a hospital room. The staff will carefully oversee your recovery.

You'll be taught how to do deep breathing exercises with an incentive spirometer (spi-ROM-eh-ter). This hand-held device helps you take slow, deep breaths. You also may have lung function tests that use a regular spirometer. This device measures how much air your lungs can hold. It also measures how fast you can blow air out of your lungs after taking a deep breath.

You'll need to cough often. Coughing helps clear fluids from your lungs so they can work well. A nurse will show you how to hold a pillow tightly near your incision site while you cough to help decrease discomfort.

Your immune system will regard your new lung as a "foreign object." It will create antibodies (proteins) against the lung. This may cause your body to reject the new organ. To prevent this, your doctor will prescribe medicines to suppress your immune system.

Because these medicines can weaken your immune system, you're more likely to get an infection after the transplant. Your medical team will take steps to prevent infections while you're in the hospital.

On average, people who have a lung transplant stay in the hospital from 1 to 3 weeks. However, some people have complications and stay much longer.

Recovery After Leaving the Hospital

Before you leave the hospital, your medical team will teach you how to keep track of your overall health. You'll learn how to watch your weight and check your blood pressure, pulse, and temperature. Staff also will show you how to check your lung function.

You'll also learn the signs of the two main complications of lung transplant surgery: rejection and infection. (For more information, go to "What Are the Risks of Lung Transplant?")

For the first 3 months after surgery, you'll go to the hospital often for blood tests, chest x rays, lung function tests, and other tests. After 3 months, if you're doing well, you'll visit less often.

Making healthy lifestyle choices is very important. Not smoking, following a healthy diet, and following your doctor's advice on using alcohol will help you recover and stay as healthy as possible.

A healthy diet includes a variety of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. It also includes lean meats, poultry, fish, beans, and fat-free or low-fat milk or milk products. A healthy diet is low in saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, sodium (salt), and added sugar.

For more information about following a healthy diet, go to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute's Aim for a Healthy Weight Web site, "Your Guide to a Healthy Heart," and "Your Guide to Lowering Your Blood Pressure With DASH." All of these resources include general information about healthy eating.

Your doctor may recommend pulmonary rehabilitation (PR) after your lung transplant surgery. PR is a broad program that may include exercise training, education, counseling, and more. For more information, go to the Health Topics Pulmonary Rehabilitation article.

Emotional Issues and Support

Having a lung transplant may cause fear, anxiety, and stress. While you're waiting for a lung transplant, you may worry that you won't live long enough to get a new lung. After surgery, you may feel overwhelmed, depressed, or worried about complications.

All of these feelings are normal for someone going through major surgery. Talk about how you feel with your health care team. Talking to a professional counselor also can help. If you’re very depressed, your doctor may recommend medicines or other treatments that can improve your quality of life.

Support from family and friends also can help relieve stress and anxiety. Let your loved ones know how you feel and what they can do to help you.

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May 1, 2011