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After Open-Heart Surgery: In the Hospital

The length of your hospital stay after open-heart surgery depends on what type of surgery you had and your needs. It may be as short as 3 to 4 days. If you have complications, you may stay in the hospital several weeks or longer. Read on to learn more about what to expect during your recovery in the hospital after open-heart surgery.

Patient lying in intensive care unit bed with medical machines surrounding her. Tube in her mouth from ventilator. Health care provider is adjusting IV bag and pump. Man is standing by hospital bed holding the patient's hand.
After open-heart surgery, you will wake up in the intensive care unit (ICU).

Right After Surgery

After your surgery, you are moved to a recovery area called the intensive care unit (ICU). Here, hospital staff monitor you closely. When you first wake up:

  • You may feel very sleepy, thirsty or cold, and sick to your stomach. It’s also common to be confused and disoriented for a time after heart surgery.

  • You will likely have a tube in your throat that is connected to a ventilator to help you breath.This tube will prevent you from being able to talk. The tube will be removed as soon as you are awake enough to breathe on your own and it is safe to do so. 

  • You will have an intravenous (IV) line in your arm or hand through which you can receive fluids and pain medication.You will also most likely have a  IV in your neck. It is also used to give you fluids and medications and to measure pressures inside your heart to guide your recovery. You will have an arterial line, usually in your wrist artery (radial artery), to monitor your blood pressure and to take regular blood samples.

  • You will be connected by wires to several machines. These monitor your vital signs, including your heartbeat, temperature, and blood oxygen level. You may also have a small pacemaker attached to temporary pacing wires in case certain arrhythmias occur that require a pacemaker.

  • Tubes (drains) in your chest remove air and fluid.

  • A tube (catheter) drains urine from your bladder.

  • You may have a tube in your stomach. This helps prevent bloating and vomiting. It will be removed when the breathing tube is removed.

  • You wrists may be gently strapped down so you don’t pull out any tubes or wires by accident.

Family members may be able to visit you in the ICU after surgery. They should know that you will have tubes and wires connected to your body. You will look pale and your face and body will look very puffy. This is all normal. You won’t be able to talk to them because of the tube in your throat. A nurse can help you communicate if you need to.

The Next Few Days

  • A nurse is always available in the ICU. You are monitored continuously.

  • As the time passes, you may feel more awake. But you may not be able to sleep well. The ICU is a busy place. The lights are always on and it can be noisy. You might be woken in the middle of the night for blood tests and X-rays so that the results are available for your doctor first thing in the morning. The nurses also have to check your blood sugar every hour or so, even if you don't have diabetes. This is very important to reduce the risk of complications.

  • You will receive pain medication, but you may still feel some pain. Tell a nurse right away if you do feel pain. Do not wait until the pain gets bad to mention it.

  • The breathing tube in your throat is removed when you can breathe on your own. When the breathing tube is removed, you’ll likely receive oxygen through a mask or small prongs in your nose. Other drains, tubes, wires, and monitoring devices are removed when you no longer need them.

  • You may hear or feel clicking in your chest when you breathe or move. This is normal and will go away with time. The breastbone was cut (separated) during surgery to allow access to the heart. Afterward, it was rejoined with wires. After the breastbone heals, the noise should go away.

  • When you’re ready to leave the ICU, you may go to a coronary care unit (CCU) for more special care. Or you may go to a regular hospital room. You will still be attached to a small portable heart monitor, but you may find it easier to sleep.

Managing Pain

To help you manage pain after surgery, you will be given pain medication. You may be given oral pain medication on a regular schedule. If the medication isn’t controlling your pain, tell your nurse. In certain cases, you will give yourself pain medication through a PCA (patient-controlled analgesia) pump. This pump allows you to push a button to receive a safe dose of pain medication. The medication is delivered through an IV line. You can only receive a certain amount of medication each hour, so you cannot get too much.

Breathing and Coughing Exercises

You will have some fluid in your lungs after the breathing tube is removed. If this fluid collects in your lungs you could develop pneumonia. To prevent pneumonia, a respiratory therapist or nurse will help you learn deep breathing and coughing exercises. Do these exercises as instructed. Holding a pillow tightly to your chest when you do your coughing exercises also helps. For breathing exercises, you may use a device called an incentive spirometer. Using this device helps your lungs recover. There might be phlegm or secretions in your throat, especially if you smoke. It can sometimes be difficult to get the phlegm or secretions out of your throat, but it is very important to do so.

Activity

Once the breathing tube is out and your vital signs are stable, a nurse or physical therapist will help you start moving around. This will happen early in your recovery while you are still in the ICU. Moving around improves circulation, decreases soreness and helps prevent blood clots and pneumonia. You may start by just sitting on the edge of the bed or moving with assistance from the bed into a chair. When you’re well enough, a staff member will help you get up and walk. At first, you will become tired easily. Tell the nurse if you feel dizzy or can’t breathe.

You may start cardiac rehabilitation (rehab) in the hospital. This is a program of exercises and education. It will help you recover after surgery and regain strength. It will also help you reduce your risk for future heart problems. Most of your rehabilitation will take place after you go home and are recovering from your surgery.

Eating

At first, you will be given only liquids to drink to prevent vomiting. As you are able to eat, you will be given solid foods. You will likely not have an appetite while you are in the hospital. You may feel nauseated, or just have no desire to eat. This is normal. When you eat, you may notice you have lost your sense of taste. This should go away in a few days or weeks as the anesthesia and pain medications wear off. Pain medications can slow your bowels and make you constipated. If you feel constipated, tell your nurse. You might be given a stool softener or something else to help you move your bowels.

Going Home

Your doctor will tell you when it’s OK for you to go home. Have an adult family member or friend ready to drive you. Make sure you have a contact number for your doctor or hospital. This is in case you have problems or questions after the procedure.

Before leaving the hospital, you will be given instructions for how to care for yourself at home. This includes caring for your incision and healing breastbone, taking medications, and being active. You may need oxygen at home. If so, you will be told how to use it. You will also be given dates and time for follow-up appointments with your surgeon, cardiologist and primary care doctor. Your doctor may recommend cardiac rehabilitation after surgery. Rehabilitation helps you get stronger before going home and may last several days up to several weeks.

Online Medical Reviewer: Fetterman, Anne, RN, BSN
Online Medical Reviewer: MMI board-certified, academically affiliated clinician
Last Review Date: 3/9/2014
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