What You Need to Know About Heart Surgery

How do you determine if surgery is right for a patient with a heart condition?

Before we recommend heart surgery, we make sure that all other alternatives, such as medications, lifestyle changes and other therapies have been considered. There is always some risk with surgery and this varies by patient. However, with the advancement in heart surgery techniques, options have increased, especially for minimally invasive surgery, and the risks are much lower.

When surgery is an option, what are some of the considerations you discuss with patients?

If surgery is the best option for the patient, we always inform them of the risks associated with the procedure. No surgery is risk-free, so both our medical team and the patient need to be as transparent as possible when discussing the procedure. We always make sure the patient knows what to expect from the moment they arrive. We talk to the patient and family to make sure they understand the procedure, how to prepare, what the recovery will be like and any follow-up that is needed.

How important is follow-up care after surgery to a healthy recovery?

Follow-up care is extremely important for any surgical procedure, especially cardiac surgery. Usually the first 48 hours following surgery are the most difficult, and it generally takes one to three months for a patient to fully recuperate from the procedure. We try to stress that patients shouldn’t get down on themselves for not being back up to full speed right away. Healing properly takes time. Sometimes the best thing you can do to help yourself heal is to take it slow and steadily increase your workload each day post-surgery, in order to help regain strength and energy.

How does recovering from a heart procedure differ from other types of surgery?

Once you have a heart procedure, it’s important to remember to refrain from or increase certain activities, as to not cause further damage or complications involving your heart and to help it heal. Things you may want to remember, include:

  • Refraining from smoking and having minimal exposure to second-hand smoke

  • Controlling your blood pressure, sometimes through medication

  • Trying to reduce fat and cholesterol in your diet

  • Making an effort to exercise regularly

  • Decreasing stress

  • Managing your weight

  • Being in control of your blood sugar and diabetes (if you have it)

What advice do you give to patients about pain management after surgery?

You don’t want to ignore pain and each person has a different threshold for pain. It is important to have a discussion with your doctor about how much pain to expect, how intense it might be and how long it will last or when it should taper off. Any medications should be carefully adjusted so that just the right amount of pain medication is used.

Common Misconceptions About Heart Surgery

Many patients go into a heart surgery procedure with ideas about how everything works. Whether it’s media like television or film, the internet, or anecdotal commentary from friends or relatives, there is a lot of information out there and not all of it is accurate. Here are some common misconceptions people have about the surgical process:

“Angioplasty and stenting or bypass surgery ‘fix’ your heart.” 

While these procedures definitely help with relieving chest pain and improving the quality of your life, they don’t stop the underlying disease—atherosclerosis. Without actually addressing the issues associated with this disease, arteries will continue to clog and become blocked, which may lead to heart attack or stroke.  It’s important to correct the behavior or habits that caused the blockage originally.

“I may wake up or feel pain during my procedure due to the anesthesia wearing off.”

Most people think the anesthesiologist leaves the room after administering the anesthesia, but that is actually not the case. There is no true way to measure “how much” anesthesia any one person actually needs, so the anesthesiologist is present throughout the surgery in order to monitor a patient’s vital signs and provide more medicine if necessary.

“I won’t be able to return to an active lifestyle after surgery.”

Many patients feel much better than they expect to after surgery. The condition that necessitates the surgery can be very limiting, and even debilitating. After surgery, patients generally feel better and can get back to activities they couldn’t do before.