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Open-heart surgery is one of the most extreme surgical procedures you can experience. The emphasis is always on the lead-up to the procedure. What happens immediately afterwards and in the weeks to come is a surprise to many.

What Is Open-Heart Surgery?

Open-heart surgery means that the chest cavity will be opened to allow surgeons to correct a variety of conditions. It often requires the use of a  heart/lung machine which takes over the blood-pumping and oxygenation of the blood performed by the heart and lungs. Procedures last from four to 14 hours or more.

What To Expect Immediately After Open-Heart Surgery

Many people are surprised to learn that they have been under continuing sedation for two to three days. This is to allow your body to heal and avoid movements or falls that will compromise recently stitched tissue. You will be in a bit of a panic as you realize a large breathing tube in your mouth and down your throat has been turned off.  The medical staff will remove this tube quickly and insert a suction tube into your mouth. Purse your lips around this just like you would do at the dentist and all fluids will be suctioned.

Day One After Awakening

You will be heavily sedated and linked to many monitoring devices, IV's and other equipment.  You may or may not remember conversations you have with people.  You will be moved to a sitting position in bed and frequently checked and tested by medical staff. 

Diet At The Hospital

Your first meal will probably be gelatin or fruit juice.  Slowly you'll be introduced to the foods you're accustomed to.  You will be encouraged to eat a broad range of foods to help healing bones, muscle and to boost your immune system.  Follow the recommendations and eat wisely. 

Days Two Through Hospital Release

As you continue to recover you will notice clear plastic tubes emerging from your abdomen.  These are to drain fluids that build up in your chest cavity.  They don't hurt but are connected to a collection box which will limit your movement.

Regardless, you will be asked to move.  You may or may not spend a day or two in cardiac ICU (intensive care unit) depending on your condition.

On The Move At The Hospital

You'll be grateful to be able to go to the bathroom rather than using a bedpan, but you will be very constipated.  Make sure a stool softener and laxative is part of your medication regimen.  You'll also be encouraged to take accompanied walks.  This is much easier to do without the chest tubes and plastic box but you'll probably do some preliminary walks carrying the boxes with the tubes still inserted.  

Open-Heart Surgery And Infection

A primary concern for anyone undergoing a surgical procedure is the risk of infection. This is particularly true with open-heart surgery due to the duration of the operation, the invasiveness of the procedures, and the numerous incisions from the chest to the legs if a bypass was needed. There also incisions from chest tubes and numerous entry points for various IV's, catheters and a breathing tube.

Staph And MRSA

The first symptoms of an infection include oozing from an incision, inflammation, redness, blisters, pain and fever. The most common type of infection is Staph although an antibiotic resistant variation of Staph known as MRSA has also appeared.

Continue reading after recommendations

  • Cardiac surgery: caring for a patient and managing complications Life-threatening complications following cardiac surgery are common, but can be managed with appropriate treatment. Clinical Pharmacist 17 OCT 2014By Anna Man
  • Cleveland Clinic. Heart Surgery Recovery
  • The Society of Thoracic Surgeons. What to expect after heart surgery.
  • National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. NIH. What to expect after heart surgery.
  • Gagnon Cardiovascular Institure. On the mend after open heart surgery.
  • Photo courtesy of Andy G via Flickr:
  • Photo courtesy of timsamoff via Flickr:

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