BACKGROUND: Total lymphoid irradiation (TLI) has been used in transplantation for over 20 years and is currently used in a number of major heart transplant centers as a secondary therapy for recalcitrant recurrent rejection or rejection with hemodynamic compromise. The purpose of this study is to evaluate the long-term risks and efficacy of TLI in the treatment of rejection. METHODS: Between 1990 and 1996, 73 adult patients (from 211 adult transplant recipients) received TLI for recurrent rejection (71%), rejection with hemodynamic compromise (25%), and rejection with vasculitis (4%). The treatment consisted of 80 cGy twice per week for 5 weeks. Fifty-five patients received at least 80% of the full dose (>640 cGy). Follow-up ended December 31, 2007, comprising a total 18 year experience. RESULTS: Patients treated with TLI exhibited a short-term decrease in hazard for rejection in the first 12 months posttransplantation (relative risk, 0.36) but exhibited increased cumulative rejection over the long term. There were no differences in the rates of infection, allograft coronary disease, or malignancy, but seven patients developed myelodysplasia or acute myelogenous leukemia, four of those being the rare but uniformly fatal acute megakaryocytic leukemia type 7. CONCLUSIONS: Patients treated with TLI seemed to experience a reduction in the early hazard for rejection, but long-term outcomes indicate that such patients continued to accumulate more rejection and rejection-death events, likely because these patients were overall at much higher risk for rejection than the other patient groups. We observed minimal long-term complications, except for the unique occurrence of myelodysplasia and acute megakaryocytic leukemia type 7.