Liver Transplant Process

A liver transplant is a surgical procedure that replaces a diseased or injured liver with a healthy liver from a deceased donor or part of a liver from a living donor.

Feel confident choosing UC San Diego Health's liver transplantation program because the region’s top transplant surgeons care for you from before your transplant through recovery. We are known for outstanding patient care and chronic liver disease research.

Candidates for Liver Transplant

The liver is the largest internal organ and has multiple functions necessary for sustaining life. It plays a crucial role in glucose metabolism, filtering blood, detoxifying drugs and alcohol, storing vitamins and producing bile for fat digestion.

Liver transplantation may be recommended if you have acute or chronic conditions resulting in irreversible liver failure or end-stage liver disease (ESLD). Conditions that can lead to end-stage liver disease include:

  • Cirrhosis (most common cause)
  • Acute hepatic necrosis
  • Autoimmune hepatitis
  • Biliary atresia
  • Hepatitis B or hepatitis C
  • Liver cancer
  • Metabolic disease
  • Nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH)

Note: A liver transplantation may not be possible for individuals with metastatic cancer, recurring infection, active drug and alcohol use and severe cardiac or other medical problems.

Health Screening Before Transplant

The first step in the transplant process is talking with your doctor. Once your doctor refers you to our liver transplant program, our team can begin working with you. You may undergo a variety of lab tests and diagnostic imaging.

We recommend you have a care partner who can provide support, transport you to your clinic visits, and receive the necessary information about your continued care.

Getting on the National Liver Transplant Waitlist

If you’re accepted as a transplant candidate after a comprehensive evaluation by our specialists, you’ll be placed on the national liver transplant waiting list.

A donor is matched based on compatible blood type and similarly sized liver. The United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS) oversees the allocation of donor organs using the model for end-stage liver disease (MELD), a system that assesses the severity of chronic liver disease by examining renal function, bilirubin and coagulation.

Our surgeons will then determine which organ is suitable to achieve your best long-term outcome.

Staying Well for Surgery

It is critical to stay as healthy as possible before liver transplant surgery to ensure that transplantation is successful. Our expert team will support your daily efforts to maintain optimal wellness.

A donor liver can become available at any time, day or night. We’ll help you put a plan in place so that you can respond quickly and arrive at the hospital prepared.

Surgery Process

The average operating time for a liver transplantation procedure is four to eight hours. After surgery, we'll monitor you carefully for signs of rejection. Depending on how healthy you were before the transplant, your hospital stay could range from one week to six weeks.

During this time, our team will guide you on continuing care at home, including a review of your medications, nutrition (foods that help/hurt recovery) and exercise activities to do (and ones to avoid).

  • Liver transplant coordinators, who are deeply involved in the transplant process and your care before, during and after transplantation. They discuss any questions or concerns with you throughout the process and coordinate your pre and post-transplant care.
  • Liver transplant financial coordinator, to be your primary contact for insurance and financial issues related to organ transplantation.
  • Liver transplant social worker, to help you handle challenges throughout the transplantation process. They can help with issues regarding housing, work, relocating, transportation assistance, state disability, medication assistance, community support and more.
  • Liver transplant dieticians, who are specially trained on the nutritional needs of people with liver diseases and how those nutritional needs change during and after transplantation. They help you create a meal plan and understand food choices that provide the greatest nutritional benefit.
  • Transplant pharmacists, who have extensive experience in the medications used to prevent rejection, and infection and keep you healthy. They help monitor your medications while you are in the hospital and at clinic visits and will teach you about each of the medications you are taking.

Post-Surgery Follow-Up Care

Preventing infection and the rejection of the transplanted organ is essential to the healing process. You'll need to take anti-rejection medications for the rest of your life to help the new liver function in your body. The quality of life usually improves dramatically after liver transplant surgery, and most people lead healthy, normal lives.

Resuming normal activities may take up to a year. Most patients can participate in fairly vigorous physical exercise six to 12 months after successful surgery. We will support you before and after surgery.

Classes & Support Groups for Liver Transplant Patients

Join our complimentary classes and/or support groups to learn about the liver transplant process, ask questions and share your experiences with other transplant patients.

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