However, all too often, recipients become too sick to even get to the operating room. A doctor at Temple University Hospital thinks he has a way to get more patients there.
To look at Tamar Ellensworth, you would never know how sick she was just over a year ago.
"I was on oxygen 24/7," Tamar said.
A chronic disease called sarcoidosis had weakened her ability to breathe. It got worse day by day until she was in lung failure.
"She was unable to get up from a chair, because that would wind her too much. She was unable to take the oxygen off long enough to even take a sip of water," said Dr. Abeel Mangi.
So the search began for lungs to transplant, but time was running out.
"She had probably 6 to 8 hours to live," said Dr. Mangi.
To keep her healthy enough for a transplant, Dr. Abeel Mangi of the Temple Lung Center used a new twist on a last-resort technique called ECMO; that's short for "Extra Corporeal Membrane Oxygenation". It oxygenates the blood.
"It takes over the function of your heart and lungs," said Dr. Mangi.
Normally, it's done through a blood vessel in the neck or groin, but that immobilizes the patient. And that can cause other problems. Often patients become too sick to undergo a transplant.
So instead Dr. Mangi goes through a vein under the collarbone. It allowed Tamar to move.
The technique worked immediately.
"I could breathe," said Ellensworth.
Luckily, soon after, a lung donor for Tamar was found, and she got her transplant.
Although it was a long road to recovery, because the sarcoidosis was only in her lungs, doctors say she's cured.
And she's savoring her good health.
"I feel like it's a brand new life," said Ellensworth.
Doctor Mangi says another reason for the success of this case is that it was done before Tamar was put on a ventilator. In fact, she never went on one.
He says if this procedure was done more often, it could help more people live long enough to get transplants.