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Susan Cody: Women and the Scary World of Heart Transplants

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Even the thought of your own heart being removed and replaced by the heart of a recently diseased person is frightening and maybe even a little ghoulish for some. People, especially women, tend to refer to their heart as something far more than a vital muscle that keeps us alive. When we talk about our children, partners, loved ones, pets or even hobbies - we often touch our chest, over our hearts, to show the depth of our feelings.

So what if you have to have that heart removed?

It means that your heart is severely damaged and all other means of improvement have been exhausted. It means you are probably on a waiting list because the amount of people needing a new heart is longer than the hearts available. It means you'll continue to take medication and be closely monitored by your doctors as well as carry around a pager in case a heart becomes available. You won't travel much - a healthy heart must be transplanted within 4-6 hours so you need to be ready to get to the hospital as soon as you receive that page. That's a lot of long term stress to live with, considering the average wait is 200 days.

Another thing to consider is that list you're on. You may be taken off the list if you show improvement, or you get too sick to be able to accept a new heart. So maintaining the health you have is important to staying eligible. Do not smoke, stay on your medications and eat a heart-healthy diet. It's also important to exercise - but only under the supervision of your doctor. Managing your diabetes and blood pressure is also essential as these factors can directly affect your outcome after transplant.

Do an equal amount of men and women receive transplants? Not even close. According to the American Heart Association, the statistics are that

- There were 2,192 heart transplants performed in the United States in 2006 and 2,125 in 2005.
Each year thousands more adults would benefit from a heart transplant if more donated hearts were available.
- In the United States, 74.2 percent of heart transplant patients are male; 68.4 percent are white; 20.0 percent are ages 35–49 and 55.3 percent are ages 50–64.
- As of June 15, 2007, the one-year survival rate was 87.4 percent for males and 85.5 percent for females; the three-year survival rate was about 78.7 percent for males and 75.9 percent for females. The five-year survival rate was 72.3 percent for males and 67.6 percent for females.

So only 1 in 4 transplants are received by women! There aren't many sources who will speculate why. The survival rates between men and women are close, and the need for a transplant is fairly equal between the sexes. Is that old male 'heart bias' still around..?

Another factor is depression. Depression is common after a heart transplant. The physical and emotional changes are enormous, as is the stress felt about your long waiting period, the surgery itself and surviving it. All hospitals provide social workers and other experts to help the patient accept her new life as a transplant recipient and she will be advised to access her support system on a continuing basis.

As we can see, the survival rates are pretty good, considering 20% of patients die while awaiting a transplant. So women - keep informed, stay aware of new statistics, and keep in mind that if you need a transplant one day, keeping your family, friends and support system around you will be vital to your chances of survival.

For more information, see www.americanheart.org

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