What it's like to be a transplant surgeon

May 20, 2016

surgical technologist

There is no such thing as a ‘routine’ transplant procedure, which makes the role of a transplant surgeon particularly challenging. Transplant surgery is almost always complex, and time is of the essence. Making it even more complex are the ethical and technical challenges involved. Organs have to be harvested from dead donors and transported carefully and quickly to the OR where the transplant surgery will be done. More importantly, with the waitlist far outnumbering the number of donor organs available, you have to come to terms with making potential life or death decisions as you prioritize patients on the waitlist.

Challenges aside, what makes this such an appealing specialty, is the thought that you will be giving people with no hope a second lease on life. If you are committed, analytical, interested in immunology and attracted to “big” surgery involving complex, lengthy operations this could be the ideal specialty for you.

As a transplant surgeon, you will be involved in every aspect of patient care and handling, from before the transplant till the time the patient is discharged and even long after. These are the types of tasks you may be required to do within the working week.

Pre-Surgery Assessment

For a transplant surgeon, a large part of the pre-surgery responsibility involves assessing new patients who are being considered for the waiting list as well as performing regular reviews of those already on the list. These assessments and reviews help determine if the patient is fit enough to undergo transplant surgery and whether the potential benefits of transplantation outweigh the risks for that particular patient. Multidisciplinary team meetings are often held to discuss patients on the waiting list and make decisions regarding patients with chronically deteriorating health.

On-Call Duties

Transplant surgeons are almost always on call. This is because, once brain death has been confirmed and consent has been obtained for organ donation, there are several formalities and procedures to be completed before the surgery can take place and everything has to be done quickly and efficiently for a successful outcome.

The most important tasks at this time are ensuring that the organ on offer is suitable for use and matching the organ with a suitable recipient. Organ suitability is determined by checking the donor’s age, weight, blood group, medical history, organ function and circumstances surrounding the death. Choosing a suitable recipient is the last task before the surgery can be performed but choosing one person from a long waitlist is also the most emotionally wrenching task for any surgeon in this specialty. If there is one aspect that differentiates transplant surgery from any other surgery, it is having to make this choice.

Follow up Duties

The success of a transplant depends on how well the recipient’s body accepts the donor organ. Keeping a watch on the patient is particularly crucial in the early stages after the operation. During this time, transplant surgeons do regular follow ups with the recipients, screening for side effects, organ rejection and other complications. As the patient’s health stabilizes, follow-up care is then taken over by other members of the team.


As you can see, the role of a transplant surgeon is probably not for everyone. However, because it provides its own unique challenges, it may be a great choice for aspiring medical professionals who are good at quick-thinking and problem solving. Over their career, a transplant surgeon will make a huge difference to the lives of their patients; transplant success rates are improving all the time, and many people live ten years (or longer!) after a successful operation.

To improve your chances of choosing the perfect specialism to match your skills, consider going on one of our medical shadowing placements.



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Gap Medics provides year-round hospital work experience for people aged 16 and over. Our shadowing placements offer a unique insight into the work of doctors, nurses, midwives, and dentists – helping students to focus their career aspirations before embarking upon medical training.