Liver Transplant

What is a liver transplant?

A liver transplant is surgery to remove a malfunctioning liver. It replaces the failing liver with a healthy liver from a living donor or a deceased donor.

The liver serves several critical purposes, being the body's largest internal organ. It produces bile needed for absorption of fats and cholesterol, processes nutrients, removes toxins and bacteria from the blood, produces proteins necessary for blood clotting, helps to prevent infection, and regulates immune responses.

In general liver transplants are suitable for people with end-stage chronic liver disease and serious complications. It can also be a treatment option in the case of sudden liver failure.

A woman holding her abdomen. A drawing of her liver, pancreas and gallbladder is laid over the top to highlight where they reside.

Am I a good candidate for a liver transplant?

If your doctor thinks you might be suitable for a liver transplant, you will undergo an assessment in one of the UK's liver transplant units. This assessment process takes around five days. As part of the assessment, you may be asked about your symptoms and the impact they have on your everyday life, as well as your medical history, and any alcohol or drug-related problems. Tests may include; x-rays and other imaging tests; blood tests; breathing tests; heart tests; and an endoscopy.

The key objectives are to; decide whether an individual is healthy enough to have surgery and cope with the lifelong medications which need to be tolerated after the procedure; assess whether there are any medical conditions present that could prevent the success of the transplant, and confirm that a person is willing to take medications as directed. Selection for liver transplant is a complex process that is performed by a wide selection of experts in highly specialised centres.

How does a liver transplant work?

Ahead of the procedure, you will typically undergo some tests at the transplant unit to ensure that you are well enough for surgery. A general anaesthetic is administered for a liver transplant, and this means that you will be put to sleep before being taken to the operation room.

During a liver transplant procedure, the surgeon will make a large incision across your stomach and upwards, in the direction of the chest. The damaged liver can then be removed, and replaced with a new, healthy one. Your new liver will be connected to your bile ducts and blood vessels, and the incision will then be closed with stitches or clips. A liver transplant usually takes four to six hours to complete, and in some cases, this may be longer.

Following the procedure, you will be taken to an intensive care unit where you can be monitored. There, you may have tubes inserted in your nose, to provide nutrients and fluids, and in your mouth, to help with breathing. After a few days, these tubes can be removed and you will be moved to a regular ward of the hospital.

Recovery from a liver transplant

In general, you will be able to return home within two weeks of a liver transplant procedure. You will have frequent check-ups as you continue to recover at home and be given a number of medications that you will take for the rest of your life. It can take six months or longer before you feel fully recovered and healed following liver transplant surgery.