This is a surgery to replace a diseased or damaged liver with a liver from a donor who has died. In some cases, a portion of the liver of a living, related donor may be used.
Normal vs. Diseased Liver
Reasons for Procedure
A liver transplant is done to treat a liver that is not working and cannot be treated. This may be caused by:
- Hepatitis A, B, or C
- Alcoholic liver disease
- Primary biliary cirrhosis
- Primary sclerosing cholangitis, which is a disease of the bile ducts
- Sudden liver failure
- Congenital defects such as biliary atresia
- Liver tumors
- Metabolic defects such as Wilson disease
- Poisoning or drug-induced damage
Problems from the procedure are rare, but all procedures have some risk. Your doctor will review potential problems, like:
- Rejection of the transplanted liver
- Damage to nearby organs
- Bile-duct obstruction or bile leakage into the body
- Complications from immunosuppressive drugs
- Blood clots
Some factors that may increase the risk of complications include:
- Alcohol use disorder
- Type 2 diabetes
- Poor nutrition
- Additional illnesses
- Serious heart, lung, or kidney disease
- Use of certain medications
- Current infection
Be sure to discuss these risks with your doctor before the surgery.
What to Expect
Prior to Procedure
There is a shortage of donors. You may be on a transplant list for some time. You may need to carry a cell phone with you at all times. This is to allow the transplant team to reach you if a liver becomes available.
Your doctor will likely do the following:
- Physical exam
- Blood tests
- CT scan
- Chest x-ray
- Electrocardiogram (EKG)
- Psychological testing and counseling—to help you to be prepared for the transplant
Leading up to your surgery:
- Talk to your doctor about your medications. You may be asked to stop taking some medications up to one week before the procedure.
- Take medications as directed. Do not take over-the-counter medications without checking with your doctor.
- The night before, eat a light meal. Do not eat or drink anything after midnight.
- Arrange for someone to drive you home. Also, arrange for someone to help you at home.
- If advised by your doctor, use an enema. The enema will clean out the intestines and prevent constipation after surgery.
General anesthesia will be used. You will be asleep during the procedure.
Description of the Procedure
An incision shaped like a boomerang will be made on the upper part of the abdomen. The old liver will be removed. Portions of major blood vessels will be left in place. The new liver will be inserted and attached to the blood vessels and bile ducts. To help with bile drainage, a tube will also be inserted into the bile duct during surgery. The area will be closed with stitches.
Immediately After Procedure
You will be closely monitored in the intensive care unit (ICU) and will have the following devices:
- Breathing tube until you can breathe on your own
- IV fluids and medication
- Bladder catheter to drain urine
How Much Will It Hurt?
Anesthesia will prevent pain during surgery. Pain and discomfort after the procedure can be managed with medications.
Average Hospital Stay
This surgery is done in a hospital setting. The usual length of stay is several weeks. Your doctor may choose to keep you longer if you show signs of rejecting the new liver or have other problems.
At the Hospital
While you are recovering at the hospital, you will:
- Receive fluids and nutrition through an IV—You will slowly transition to eating.
- Breathe deeply and cough 10-20 times every hour—This will help your lungs work better after surgery.
- Take immunosuppressive drugs—You will need to take these for the rest of your life. These drugs reduce the chance that your body will reject the new liver. They also have potential side effects, like infection and cancer. Be sure to discuss these risks with your doctor.
When you return home, do the following to help ensure a smooth recovery:
- Take proper care of the incision site. This will help to prevent an infection.
- Work with a physical therapist. Exercises will help you to regain strength.
- Monitor your temperature, blood pressure, pulse, and weight.
- Follow a special diet. This diet will help to prevent water retention and to maintain a normal weight and blood pressure.
- Take medications as advised by your doctor.
Recovery time varies. It depends, in part, on your health before the transplant.
Call Your Doctor
It is important for you to monitor your recovery after you leave the hospital. Alert your doctor to any problems right away. If any of the following occur, call your doctor:
- Signs of infection, including fever and chills—you are at increased risk for infection because of the immunosuppressive drugs
- Redness, swelling, increasing pain, excessive bleeding, or discharge from the incision site
- Cough, shortness of breath, or chest pain
- Severe nausea or vomiting
- Black or tarry stools, constipation, or diarrhea that does not go away after two loose stools
- You are unable to take your medications
- Red or rusty-brown urine
- Any skin rash or sores in your mouth
- Vaginal discharge in women
- Pain, burning, urgency, frequency of urination, or persistent bleeding in the urine
- Exposure to infections, such as mumps, measles, chickenpox or shingles
- Headache, confusion, lightheadedness, or loss of consciousness
- Unusual weakness
- Illness that requires emergency room treatment or hospitalization
If you think you have an emergency, call for medical help right away.
American Liver Foundation
United Network for Organ Sharing
Canadian Liver Foundation
Gee I, Alexander G. Liver transplantation for hepatitis C virus related liver disease. Postgrad Med J. 2005;81(962):765-771.
Liu CL, Fan ST. Adult-to-adult live-donor liver transplantation: the current status. J Hepatobiliary Pancreat Surg. 2006;13(2):110-116.
Liver transplant. American Liver Foundation website. Available at: http://www.liverfoundation.org/abouttheliver/info/transplant. Accessed August 14, 2014.
Neuberger J. Developments in liver transplantation. Gut. 2004;53(5):759-768.
O’Grady JG. Liver tansplantation alcohol related liver disease: (deliberately) stirring a hornet’s nest! Gut. 2006;55(11):1529-1531.
What I need to know about liver transplantation. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Disorders website. Available at: http://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/health-topics/liver-disease/liver-transplant/Pages/facts.aspx. Updated May 10, 2012. Accessed August 15, 2014.
Last reviewed September 2015 by Donald Buck, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.