Preparing for Open Heart Surgery

By Warren Selkow, Patient and Survivor (Twice)

I need open-heart surgery?!

The doctor has just made it abundantly clear you need open heart surgery. Here is probably what you are experiencing right now: FEAR.

Okay, now we both know you are perfectly normal. In other features on this site I have expressed the opinion there is rarely a need for emergency open-heart surgery and I have given all the specifics as to why. It is advisable for you to read those other features. There is a big difference between an emergency procedure and an urgent one. You probably have an urgent requirement, not an emergency or emergent requirement (I just love that word emergent, don’t you?)

What is the difference between urgent and emergency? It is an emergency if your house is on fire. It is urgent if you have a backed up toilet and the second floor is flooding. For the fire you call the fire department and get everyone out of the house. For the backed up toilet, you turn off the water and call a plumber. You can immediately start the mop up. We are going to discuss the immediate mop up.

Open-heart surgery emotions

The five emotions most people go through upon being told of the urgent requirement for open-heart surgery are (not necessarily in this order) fear, depression, stress, anxiety and anger. If you are experiencing those emotions you are having a perfectly normal reaction to the bad news. What is most important for your immediate well-being is for you to recognize that what you are feeling is normal. Getting a label on the feelings goes a long way to helping you cope with the situation.

In an urgent situation, you are not going to have weeks and weeks to get on top of the problem. You are going to be all consumed with the impending surgery. There are a great number of things you can do prior to the surgery. In The Simplified Handbook for Living With Heart Disease and Other Chronic Diseases a great amount of space is devoted to preparing for the surgery. My first piece of advice is to read that book.

You are going to be afraid. You are also going to be stressed, depressed, angry and anxious. Recognize this and start to move forward. You cannot undo the situation so just go with the flow and accept it.

This advice is equally valid for the caregiver and family of the patient.

The fear will probably make you wonder what the state of your affairs is. That is a good question to get answered but it is not the most important issue. Much more important is the conditions of your health insurance. Open-heart surgery is very expensive.

Pre Open-heart surgery diet

This falls in the category of closing the barn door after the horse is out. You cannot undo the years of bad eating habits in the short time before the open-heart surgery. However, know this: recovery begins upon diagnosis of cardiac disease. It is best if you get on a heart smart, heart healthy diet. Not that this diet is going to make the surgery any easier. It is just important to start to change your evil ways.

The heart smart healthy diet is long on high-density lipid fats (mostly from nuts and fish like salmon) and short on low-density lipid fats (almost everything you probably eat) and very short on salt. Ouch.

Try to lose some weight. For every pound you can get off your body, you will also lose one mile of veins, which will start to lower your blood pressure.

Of course, you can take the fatalistic approach of ignoring all the advice everyone is going to be giving you and you can continue to eat like there is no tomorrow. After all, you ate like a horse anyway for the past decade so what difference does another week or two make? Absolutely none. However, it does convey and demonstrate your overall attitude toward the situation. If you are not going to immediately start to get your desire for food under control and change all of your eating habits, then don’t have the surgery. Your fork and knife is only going to kill you anyway. Why live through the pain?

Pre open-heart surgery smoking

If you smoke, don’t bother having the open-heart surgery if you are not willing to immediately and forever stop smoking. You are just taking up time, money and resources a smarter person could use. Cough, cough. Idiot. Save your breath, I don’t want to hear about what a serious addiction your smoking is. Look somewhere else for sympathy and solace.

Pre open-heart surgery exercise

This is another case of the open barn door. If you have not exercised for the past decade, exercise is not going to save your life now. However, if your doctor approves, and only if your doctor approves, light exercise is extremely worthwhile. Any conditioning you can do of your general muscle tone is going to be helpful. Conditioning will improve your odds of survival and further improve your recovery.

Know this: after the surgery you are going to have to go on an exercise program. It is part and parcel of your recovery program. If you are not going to get serious about getting into some form of conditioning, don’t have the surgery. When you are ready make sure to read the pages about activity post surgery: Exercise and Heart Disease: Part I and Exercise and Heart Disease: Part II.

What to do before Open-heart surgery

Here is a small list of the things you can do prior to open-heart surgery:

  1. Get a haircut
  2. Get your teeth cleaned
  3. Prepare an advanced directive
  4. Prepare a will and establish a trust to avoid probate
  5. Change your life-style choices for the future (there is going to be a future – your world has only changed, not ended)

What to expect immediately after open-heart surgery

You can expect all of the following upon waking up after open heart-surgery:

  1. Your hands will be restrained.
  2. You will hurt
  3. You might have a tube in your mouth – don’t worry, they will get that out pretty fast
  4. Your room will be very noisy
  5. You will be made to cough and this will hurt, do it anyway

What to expect for the first five or so days after open-heart surgery

You can expect all of the following for the first five days after open-heart surgery:

  1. It is going to hurt
  2. You will have a full time nurse either in your room or right outside the door
  3. You will be wired up with a battery of equipment
  4. You will be in a perpetual fog
  5. You will be continually prodded, poked, stabbed, x-rayed and abused (any pride you have will be stripped away by the nurses)
  6. You will be forced to get out of bed and walk around
  7. Did I mention it is going to hurt?

What to expect for the first six weeks after open-heart surgery

Here is what you can expect for the first six weeks after you get home from the hospital after the open-heart surgery:

  1. It is going to hurt for at least six weeks until the incisions and bones heal.
  2. You are going to be enrolled in a cardio-rehab exercise program
  3. You will need regular blood testing
  4. You will have a poor appetite.
  5. You are going to be depressed, stressed, anxious, fearful and angry.

Cardiac Disease – The Long Haul

Ninety-six percent of the folks that have open-heart surgery live. The four percent that don't make it are too old, too sick or too de-conditioned to survive the ordeal. If you could get those odds in Vegas, you would spend your life there in a life of great ease. Unfortunately, your life will not be a simple as a roll of the dice or deciding to hit or not.

Your life will have to drastically and dramatically change.

This site is dedicated to helping you live for the long haul. Our features cannot cover all the advice in The Simplified Handbook for Living With Heart Disease and Other Chronic Diseases. This feature barely scratches the surface of what is included in the book.

The real issue of preparing for open-heart surgery is the issue of preparing to live the rest of your life with heart disease. If you are not willing to invest the necessary personal capital to change your life style and your lifestyle choices, than I would ask only this question: Why are you reading this?

Make the commitment to change and I will be waiting for you after your surgery. I wish you the very best.

The Simplified Handbook for
Living with Heart Disease
and Other Chronic Diseases

This comprehensive, doctor reviewed and approved book explains heart disease from a patientís perspective. Without complicated medical mumbo-jumbo, this blunt and hilarious book is a total lifesaver.