Open Heart Surgery – On the road to recovery
Each patient’s recovery rate is different, especially after a coronary artery bypass surgery. How quickly you recover will depend in part on your physical health before surgery and how complex and extensive your heart surgery was. The first step in recovery is when you can breathe deeply and cough to clear your lungs. When you can do this, your breathing tube will be removed and replaced with an oxygen mask. This could happen as soon as the day after your surgery. Your doctor will then have you moved from the ICU to another area of the hospital. Your care will continue as follows:
- you will continue to have electrocardiograms to record your heart rhythm
- you will wear an oxygen mask as needed
- you will continue to have blood tests
- your fluid intake and output will be monitored
- the nurses will help you with turning in bed, coughing and deep breathing exercises
- you will start with ice chips and sips of fluid, then solid food
Taking part in your recovery
As you become more active, you will become more involved in your own recovery – even while you are still in the hospital. Here are some activities you can do:
- eat right – healthy food helps you heal
- keep your lungs free of fluid, which can lead to pneumonia, by practicing your deep breathing and coughing exercises
- get out of bed as soon as you can so your muscles stay strong; start slowly sitting on the side of the bed, then the chair, then short walks, then longer walks
- do the recommended leg exercises to keep your legs muscles strong
- wear elastic or support stockings if your doctor ordered them
- use a chair with a firm back when sitting with pillows on the chair arms; raise your feet to the same height if your legs or feet swell, but don’t cross your legs (this slows blood flow)
Because of your surgery and limited movement right after, fluid can build up in your lungs. This fluid can cause pneumonia and keep you keep you in the hospital. Therefore, it is very important that you take deep breaths and cough often. You may be given an incentive spirometer to help you breathe correctly. To ease the pain when you cough, support your chest incision with a pillow or your hands.
Good days and bad days
After the first few days when you’ve come through the worst of it, your emotions may get the best of you. Don’t be surprised if you have good days and bad days. You may cry more easily, have bad dreams, not be able to concentrate or just feel afraid or down. Some of this is related to stress, lack of sleep and the effects of the anesthesia and other medicines. It’s not pleasant, but it’s normal after what you’ve been through. Don’t pretend you feel OK when you don’t. Let your family and the hospital staff know. Both you and your family may benefit a lot by talking to a rehabilitation counselor.
Better days ahead
As you near the end of your hospital stay, you will become really anxious to return home. Your mental outlook will improve and your physical recovery may even speed up once you’re home. Family, familiar surroundings and peace and quiet can help a lot.
Before you leave the hospital, you will receive instructions from your cardiac health care team about a number of things. These include :
- how to care for your incision(s)
- your new heart-healthy diet
- a list of physical activities you can do during the next 6-12 weeks
- recommended exercises
- a list of special equipment, medicines or supplies you will need
- the date of your first follow-up visit
Once you’re at home, pace yourself. Follow your doctor’s instructions. Be aware of how you feel during everyday activities. You will be able to tell when you can increase the amount or level of activity. When you are tired, rest. When you’re hungry, eat – but eat heart healthy foods.
Congratulations! You’re on your way. There are better days ahead!
A final note – when to call your doctor
After you get home you may feel a little nervous and worried about being on your own. Well, don’t sit and worry if you think something is not right about your health or healing. If you have any of the following signs of a heart attack or infection call your doctor, cardiologist or surgeon. Keep their numbers handy. If the signs tell you it’s an emergency and you are not able to reach your doctors, call 911 immediately.
Your stitches or staples will be removed within 10 to 14 days after surgery. You should check your incision every day. Call you doctor if you have signs of infection.
Warning signs of infection
- red, hot and swollen incisions(s)
- smelling discharge coming from an incision
- a temperature over 100 degrees for a few days
- chest congestion, coughing, and problems with breathing at rest
Warning signs of a heart attack
- intense, steady pressure or burning pain in the center of your chest
- pain that starts in the center of the chest and goes to a shoulder and arm (usually the left) or both shoulders and arms, back, neck and jaw
- prolonged pain in the upper abdomen
- nausea, vomiting, profuse sweating
- shortness of breath, looking pale
- dizziness, light-headedness or fainting
- frequent angina attacks like you may have had before surgery
- a sense of anxiety or doom
Warning signs of an emergency
- your are bleeding a lot of bright red blood or you see blood clots
- you have a sharp pain that does not go away with your pain medicine
- your incision(s) opens
- if you had leg surgery, your leg turns blue or you lose feeling in your leg
- your fever goes up fast or is over 101 degrees
- you have allergic reactions to medicines you are taking