Recovering from Open-Heart Surgery

By Warren Selkow, Patient and Survivor

Getting home from the hospital after the open-heart surgery was a little harder than you thought it would be, wasn't it? Every little bump in the road managed to send a jolt of discomfort through your chest and you could have sworn the person driving you home was hitting the bumps on purpose. That was probably not the case, it only seemed that way. Well, here is the news: the first six weeks after open-heart surgery are a long drive. However, you will get to the destination and as the drive goes on, the bumps get less and less bothersome.

The first week after the coronary surgery, the nursing staff in the hospital met all your postoperative requirements. When you arrive home, there will be only you and your caregiver. The first thing you need to recognize is you are responsible for your healing. If you are not willing to accept the responsibility to help yourself, you cannot reasonably expect anyone else to shoulder that responsibility.

There are many, many things you need to know about the first six weeks. There are many side effects of open-heart surgery. This feature cannot scratch the surface of all the things we cover in The Simplified Handbook for Living With Heart Disease and Other Chronic Diseases. We will address some of the key items of coronary bypass surgery recovery in this feature.

Pain – the evil side effect of open-heart surgery

It hurts and it will hurt until the sternum heals. The chest bone is the slowest part of the healing process. Unless there is some complication the incision sites will heal in a few weeks. Outside of the scars, there will be no reminder of the surgery. The sternum is another issue. It will hurt with every breath you take, every sneeze you sneeze, every cough you cough and every laugh you laugh. For six or so weeks and then it will stop, almost like magic.

You will want to rely on the pain meds to get you through this period. Don't. You must get off those meds as fast as possible. Pain meds put you in a pain cycle. You hurt, you take the meds. The pain abates and you feel okay until the meds wear off. You will hurt and you will take more meds and this will go on and on. Break that cycle as soon as possible.

A very serious side effect of the pain meds is constipation. This is no laughing matter. Constipation makes you feel out of sorts, gives you a headache and makes you irritable. The aftermath of the surgery will cause all the irritability you need without adding to your grief.

I am not advocating, nor am I recommending you do not take pain medications. I am saying it is necessary for you to taper down the amount of the pain drugs you take as quickly as possible. I know it hurts. It is not addiction that is the concern. It is the other side effects that slow down your healing.

Exercise – the open-heart surgery side effect killer

You must begin exercising IMMEDIATELY. Walking and light stretching are the recommended drills. Get your body into a cardio rehab program. In the beginning, and I mean as soon as you are home, walk around the house for five or ten minutes. Do this every hour. If you can get outside, take a companion and get outside and walk. The fresh air and the sunshine will do you a world of good. Walk for five minutes, stop and rest. Walk and rest. The longer you can walk, the better for you and your heart.

Do not lift anything heavier than five pounds. No exceptions.

Exercise is an ongoing requirement for dealing with the pain and the life style change you are going to have to make to live with coronary disease. A positive aftermath of the open-heart surgery is the necessity for you to get on a regular exercise program.

The exercise will hasten your recovery from the open-heart surgery. When you're ready make sure to read Exercise and Heart Disease: Part I and Exercise and Heart Disease: Part II.

Sleep

There is a big difference between sleep and rest. You will need to rest often during the day. Do not get in the habit of taking long naps. Long naps will destroy your sleep patterns. You will not be able to sleep the night through. You will rely on sleeping pills to make you sleep. This is a very bad practice. Sleeping pills are another of the drugs you want to stop taking as soon as possible. There is no such thing as a safe sleeping pill.

Medications

Here is the total list of all you need to know about your medications:

  1. Learn what they are and why they have been prescribed
  2. Take them exactly like directed
  3. Take them exactly like directed

Food – Heart Healthy Diet

For the first many weeks after open-heart surgery you will probably not have much of an appetite. It is necessary for you to get on a heart healthy diet and to stick to it.

You will be cold. Take iron supplements as recommended by your doctor.

You must eat as much as you can. This is the only time for the rest of your life where you may stuff your face.

You are going to lose weight.

On-going blood and vitals testing – the aftermath of open-heart surgery

If you are lucky, you will have a visiting nurse that will come to your home and check up on you at least once a week. The nurse will check you wounds you review your progress as well as take vitals. This information will be sent back to your doctor. The nurse will also draw blood and send that to the lab. This blood work is very important and even more necessary if you have been given an artificial device of some kind, like a stent or artificial valve.

Regular visits to your cardiologist and your internist are frequent during the first three months after the surgery. As you demonstrate healing and adaptation to the new life style changes, those visits will diminish. In six months you will miss the good old days of sitting around your doctors office complaining about how lousy you feel.

You will now have a lifetime of regular check ups and testing.

The emotional nightmare following open-heart surgery

You are going to be stressed, depressed, afraid, anxious, angry and irritable. Pretty good, huh? You will also be uncooperative and nasty. Recognize this. Get over it. Uncooperative and nasty are a waste of time and worse, will only make those who are there to help you not want to take care of you.

There are several other features on this site dealing will all the emotional baggage accompanying open-heart surgery. Read those.

Know this: you are over the worst of it. Here is the short list of what you need to know:

  1. You must make serious life style changes
  2. You must get educated
  3. You must exercise and
  4. You must get on and stay on a heart healthy diet
  5. There are no viable options to the above.

Stay well.

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.