Undergoing heart surgery may cause jitters and uncertainty. Knowing what the process looks like and what you might encounter can help put your mind at ease so you can focus on your recovery. Every procedure and person is different, but this guide offers a general look at what you can expect when you choose Penn Medicine’s Heart Surgery Program.
Preparing for Heart Surgery
Your surgeon or a member of the team will talk with you about any medicines you might be taking and whether it is safe to continue them. To ensure you receive the best care possible, they will arrange for specific tests that may include:
- Blood tests
- Chest X-ray
- Echocardiogram (EKG)
Your surgical team will also teach you breathing exercises to help you remove or prevent mucus buildup in your lungs after surgery. If you smoke, now is the time to stop. Smoking increases the demands on your heart and prevents proper healing.
On the Day of Cardiac Surgery
Starting at midnight on the day of surgery you should stop eating or drinking. If your doctor told you to take any medicines, please use only a small sip of water.
Before we take you to the operating room, one of our cardiothoracic anesthesiologists will place an IV to deliver medicines into your vein. The medication will help you relax and keep you comfortable. Your anesthesia team will remain in the operating room throughout your procedure to ensure you are safely sedated.
It is common for heart surgery to take between four and six hours. After your operation, we will transfer you to our specialized cardiac intensive care unit. A highly trained team will provide skilled care 24/7 and provide updates to your family.
In-Hospital Heart Surgery Recovery
When you’re stable, you will be transferred to another floor to resume recovery. Your care team includes:
- Your surgeon and the cardiac surgery fellows he or she supervises
- Nurses and nursing assistants
- Nurse practitioners and physician assistants
- Physical and occupational therapists
- Social workers
The team will encourage you to move as soon as you are able and to keep moving throughout your hospital stay. Movement promotes blood flow and breathing. Your team will give you specific movement goals and exercises for each day you are in the hospital.
A respiratory specialist will see you in the hospital to help you perform deep breathing and coughing exercises that keep your lungs clear.
Pain is part of the healing process, but we work closely with you to ensure you are comfortable. Communicate with your nursing or surgical team about the level of pain you experience.
We may discharge you to your home, a rehabilitation unit or other skilled care unit. Before discharge, we will give you information about how often to continue your activity and breathing exercises.
Long-Term Recovery From Cardiac Surgery
It takes time to recover from heart surgery. Your care team will provide detailed instructions on activity and rest, showering and incision care, medications and follow-up appointments.
You can expect to start feeling better within four to six weeks. You may experience these typical symptoms, which will improve over time:
- Decreased appetite
- Difficulty sleeping
- Mood swings
- Muscle pain or tightness in your shoulder
If your surgeon prescribed medications, it is important to take them exactly as prescribed. Contact your doctor if you have any side effects such as vomiting, fever, weight gain or changed heart rate.
You should continue light activity and breathing exercises, but stop immediately if you:
- Are short of breath
- Experience an irregular heartbeat
- Feel dizzy
- Have chest pain
Your surgeon will tell you when it’s safe to drive and return to work. Typically, you will be ready between six and 12 weeks following surgery.
Following surgery, your doctor may recommend you participate in cardiac rehab. Penn’s team of outpatient cardiac rehab experts work with you to regain your strength and stamina using gentle exercises. Learn more about cardiac rehabilitation.