Are You Having Heart Surgery? Here’s What You Can Expect

Walk your way to a speedier recovery
Doctor pushing and assisting patient in the hospital

Contributor: Shannon Pengel, MSN, RN, Clinical Nursing Director, Cleveland Clinic’s Heart and Vascular Institute

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When you face cardiac surgery, a certain amount of stress is normal. But you can ease your anxiety and speed your recovery if you are prepared. Knowing what to expect can help get you back on your feet and walking again as quickly as possible.

Here are the answers to the most frequently asked questions people often have about what happens before and after heart surgery.

What happens before my surgery?

If you’re not already in the hospital, you should expect to come in for a full day of tests before the day of your surgery. On that day, you will be given pre-operative tests, such as blood work, X-rays, an EKG and an ultrasound. You will also meet with your anesthesiologist and your surgeon.

At this time, your surgeon will go over the details of your procedure and answer questions about what you can expect before and after surgery. The anesthesiologist will ask about any problems you have had with anesthesia in the past. You will also meet with your pre-op nurse practitioner who will discuss your at-home pre-operative instructions.  If you have any questions about your surgery, write them down and bring them to this visit.

What should I do to prepare at home for my surgery?

The first thing you should do is review all of the written materials you were given during your pre-op day at the hospital. Make sure you pay close attention to the instructions you were given about your medications (both prescribed an over the counter) because you may need to stop taking some of them for a period of time before your surgery.

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Usually, someone from your surgical team will call you the afternoon before your surgery to let you know what time to check in for your procedure. Once you get the call, re-read your pre-surgery instructions and make sure you follow them. Other than that, do your best to go about your regular routine, and try to relax.

What should I expect after surgery?

When you wake up after surgery, you will stay in the cardiovascular intensive care unit for at least one night. You will probably have a tube in your throat to help you breathe. There will also be a button you can push to give yourself pain medication when you need it. Your family will be able to visit you and your nurse will come frequently to check on you.

How long you will stay in the hospital will depend on the type of surgery you had and how well your recovery goes. You will be given home recovery instructions before you leave the hospital.

What can I do to make my recovery faster?

Walk. That’s one of the most important things you can do during your recovery.

When people are in bed during recovery, they are prone to getting blood clots.  The medical team will have you wear special stockings, give you blood thinning medications and encourage you to get up and walk.

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People are often surprised that they need to get a blood thinning medication called heparin through a shot in the belly. This area is actually the least painful, and the medication is needed to prevent life-threatening blood clots while you are least active. Your doctor will tell you how long you need to be on this.

Also, make sure you have adequate pain control. If you have any concerns about the amount of pain you are in, discuss them with your care team.

If it hurts to get up and walk after surgery, why do I need to do it?

Walking after heart surgery helps to relieve swelling. It also helps to reduce pain, prevent blood clots and keep your lungs clear.

These are just a few of the questions most people have.  If you have questions, do not be afraid to ask.  Your health care team is there to help you through your surgery and recovery.

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