what caregivers can expect after liver transplant

Each day, your liver helps you digest food and filters harmful substances (toxins) from your blood. When liver disease or damage affects your liver, it can often heal itself.

Sometimes, liver damage is too advanced for self-healing. End-stage liver disease (liver failure) may develop. But there is hope — liver transplant surgery offers life-saving treatment when someone you love has liver failure.

Caring for a loved one after liver transplant can be challenging and rewarding. If you’ll be a caregiver after liver transplant surgery, here’s what you should know.

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What Is Liver Transplant Surgery?

During surgery, specialists remove the recipient’s diseased or damaged liver. They replace it with a healthy liver from a donor. A new liver may come from a deceased donor or from a living donor.

Surgeons open the recipient’s abdomen by making an incision. They stop blood from flowing through blood vessels to the diseased liver. They remove the unhealthy liver, insert the donated liver, and attach bile ducts and blood vessels to the new organ.

Liver transplant surgery usually takes between six and 12 hours. After surgery, most recipients spend about two weeks in the hospital.

Your loved one will stay in the hospital’s intensive care unit for a while. A group of healthcare providers called a transplant team cares for them during this time. The team monitors them to make sure the new liver functions properly and that their body isn’t rejecting the new organ.

Once they’re stable, your loved one leaves intensive care and goes to a transplant unit. They will:

  • Continue taking anti-rejection medicines (immunosuppressants) to help their immune system accept the new liver.
  • Stand up and move around each day to help prevent blood from clotting.
  • Rest and get stronger.

When doctors say they’re ready, your loved one can go home to continue recovering. The care you provide at home is critical to healing after liver transplant.

Care at Home After Liver Transplant

You may feel nervous about caring for someone after liver transplant. But with planning and preparation, you’ll have the tools you need to feel confident in this role.

Liver transplant recipients need 24-hour-a-day care for about six weeks after surgery. During this time, they won’t be able to:

  • Drive themselves to appointments until their doctor says it’s OK.
  • Lift heavy things, including children or pets.
  • Prepare meals for themselves at first.

Your loved one may need help with bathing, dressing, and using the bathroom. They’ll also need help with managing medications, including their anti-rejection drugs.

You can make caregiving easier on yourself by creating a plan and using resources available to you. It’s also important to identify people who can help provide care when you need a break or have other responsibilities.

Being prepared helps you focus on keeping your loved one safe and comfortable as they heal. You’ll need to:

Guard against infection

Avoiding infection after liver transplant surgery is important. Anti-rejection drugs designed to suppress the immune system can make your loved one more likely to get sick. To help protect them, you can:

  • Ask friends and family to stay home if they aren’t feeling well.
  • Encourage visitors to wear a mask and make sure they wash their hands.
  • Follow the transplant team’s recommendations about contact with pets.
  • Frequently clean the bathroom and any areas where your loved one spends time.
  • Wash your own hands often, especially before preparing food or medications.

Manage the details

After surgery, liver transplant recipients have many health appointments to make sure their new organ is functioning as it should. You’ll need to keep track of these appointments. Over time, you can expect these visits to become less frequent.

Tools like paper-based planners, scheduling apps, and wall calendars or whiteboards can help keep you organized. In the first month or two after surgery, you and your loved one can expect:

  • Many blood tests, including liver function tests.
  • Follow-up appointments with the transplant coordinator.
  • Visits with the liver specialist (hepatologist) or transplant surgeon.

Monitor meals and medications

Healing after liver transplant requires following all dietary and medication instructions from the transplant team. You can help by preparing healthy meals and making sure your loved one takes all medications as prescribed. You should:

  • Create a medication schedule: Make a list of all medications your loved one needs to take and at what time they need to take them. Note whether they need to take the medicine with food. If you have questions or concerns, talk to the transplant team.
  • Make a meal plan: Talk to your loved one about the foods the transplant team recommends. Ask what they like and don’t like, and plan meals that limit salt and sugar.

Provide progress reports

The transplant team will rely on you for important information about your loved one’s healing and recovery milestones after liver transplant. You’ll need to watch for signs of liver rejection, such as:

  • Abdominal pain or soreness.
  • Changes in stool or urine color.
  • Fatigue.
  • Fever.
  • Yellowing of the eyes or skin (jaundice).

Stay open and understanding

Your loved one will be sore and tired, especially when they first return home. They may feel anxious or sad. They may not seem like themselves.

You can help by listening and by celebrating their progress, however small. If they show signs of depression or seem to need more support, talk to the transplant team.

It’s also important to encourage them to get up and move. Moving helps with liver transplant recovery and may lift their spirits. Follow the transplant team’s instructions for how much movement and what types of activity are right for them.

Don’t Forget to Care For Yourself

It takes a special person to care for a friend or family member after liver transplant surgery. It’s a big commitment of time and energy. That’s why it’s important to take care of your own health and well-being during this time.

One of the best ways to care for yourself while caring for someone else is to ask for help. Friends and family can:

  • Bring meals so you don’t have to cook. If others will be cooking for your loved one, be sure to share dietary instructions from the transplant team.
  • Go to the pharmacy or store when you need food, medication, or other supplies.
  • Sit with your loved one so you can shower, nap, or go for a walk or drive.

Professional resources can also help. Make sure you know who you can call if you have an urgent medical question about your loved one. Talk to the transplant team about other resources available to support you as your loved one recovers at home.

American Liver Foundation, What Does Your Liver Do?, Link

National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, Liver Transplant Surgery, Link

UPMC Liver Transplant Program, Frequently Asked questions, Link

About Transplant Services

For more than four decades, UPMC Transplant Services has been a leader in organ transplantation. Our clinicians have performed more than 20,000 organ transplant procedures, making UPMC one of the foremost organ transplant centers in the world. We are home to some of the world’s foremost transplant experts and take on some of the most challenging cases. Through research, we have developed new therapies that provide our patients better outcomes — so organ recipients can enjoy better health with fewer restrictions. Above all, we are committed to providing compassionate, complete care that can change – and save – our patients’ lives. Visit our website to find a provider near you.