How to Prepare for Open Heart Surgery

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Open heart surgery is a longstanding and widely-used treatment. It is highly successful in taking on cardiac issues, including heart failure, heart attack, coronary artery disease, and atrial fibrillation. Positive outcomes rely on proper preparation. If open heart surgery has been indicated for your case, it’s essential to learn as much as you can about what to expect and how to get ready.

Ventilator monitor ,given oxygen by intubation tube to patient, setting in ICU/Emergency room
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Open heart surgeries are performed while the patient is under general anesthesia (meaning they’re put to sleep) in a specialized operating room in the hospital and recover in an intensive care unit devoted specifically to cardiac care.

The procedure involves opening up the breastbone, or sternum, and placing the heart on a heart-lung bypass machine while problems are corrected. In some cases, it may be performed through the left side of the ribs in order to spare the sternum.

As you’d imagine, the operating room will have a range of specialized equipment to assist with the procedure and keep patients stable during treatment. Typically, this will include:

  • Intravenous catheter (IV): The patient will first be placed on the operating table, and anesthesia will be administered via an intravenous catheter (IV) placed in your arm. Other IVs may be necessary to provide additional medication or fluid to the bloodstream.
  • Chest tubes: These tubes provide drainage of fluid from the lungs to allow them to operate better. They may be left in for up to a couple of days, but are removed if there is little to no material to drain.
  • Foley catheter: This catheter connects to the bladder, draining any urine to a bag.  
  • Ventilator: Ensuring that the patient is still getting oxygen during the operation is essential. As such, the patient will be connected to a ventilator using an endotracheal tube (breathing tube) that goes in the mouth and into the windpipe. This ensures that respiration still happens while you are asleep.
  • Cardiac monitor: This device monitors heart rate and rhythm using sticky pads that are placed on the chest. This information is sent to a monitor that tracks everything in real-time.
  • Heart-lung machine: By definition, open heart surgery requires the heart to be temporarily stopped while treatment occurs. As such, the patient will be connected to a heart-lung machine, which essentially pumps blood and breathes for them while they’re being operated upon.

What to Wear

Since open heart surgery is performed under general anesthesia, you’ll need to change into the hospital’s dressing gown once you get there. Because you’ll be spending some time in the hospital after surgery, you may also want to bring a change of clothes. It’s typically recommended that you opt for comfortable, loose-fitting garments.

There are also a number of items you may not be permitted to wear, including:

  • Prosthetic devices
  • Watches
  • Jewelry
  • Makeup
  • Lotion
  • Nail polish
  • Deodorant
  • Facial/body piercings
  • Hair products
  • Contact lenses

Check with your hospital regarding these items: someone will go over your surgeon's preferences and the hospital's policy with you regarding what to wear and bring well before the procedure is to be performed.

Food and Drink

To ensure success with open heart surgery, you’ll need to regulate what you eat and drink. While you can eat a meal the evening before your surgery, you should not eat or drink anything after 10 p.m. the night before. This includes avoiding gum, mints, any beverages, and even water.

With beverages, it’s often recommended to avoid caffeine and alcohol for up to 48 hours prior to surgery.

Your medical team will make sure to explain more exactly what you can and cannot eat prior to surgery. Listen carefully and don’t hesitate to ask any questions you may have.


Since prescribed and over-the-counter drugs can interact with those used during surgery, it’s absolutely essential that you let your healthcare provider know what you’re taking. As you may already be on a number of medications, it’s a good idea to bring along a complete list. As you draft it, make sure to also include any supplements or herbs you’re using as well.

This is especially the case if you take any of the following:

  • Blood-thinning medications: These include antiplatelet medications and enteric-coated aspirin (such as Ecotrin and Plavix), anticoagulant medications including Coumadin (warfarin), heparin, and Eliquis (apixaban), and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as aspirin, Celebrex (celecoxib), ibuprofen, and others.
  • Beta blockers: This class includes Sectral (acebutolol), Tenormin (atenolol), Zebeta (bisoprolol), and Lopressor and Toprol XL (metoprolol), among others.
  • Herbs and supplements: Some herbs and supplements may also be problematic, including Ginkgo biloba, vitamin E, feverfew, garlic, ginger, ginseng, omega-3 fatty acids, fish oil, turmeric, and St. John’s wort.
  • Pain medicines: Because of their effect on the heart, tell your healthcare provider if you’re taking opioid pain medications like Percocet, Vicodin, and Oxycontin, among others.  

You may need to stop taking drugs containing aspirin (such as Excedrin, Midol, Genacote, and Percodan, among many others) for at least three days prior to surgery, due to an increased risk of bleeding.

Inform your healthcare provider of any medications, herbs, or supplements you are taking. Some drugs may hinder open heart surgery or lead to dangerous complications, so it’s essential that the practitioner knows exactly what you’re taking.

As you get ready for surgery, alongside anesthesia, you may also be administered some drugs to help you relax. These might include:

  • Temazepam
  • Lorazepam 
  • Midazolam (not recommended for seniors)
  • Diazepam (not recommended for children)
  • Dexmedetomidine
  • Morphine  

As much as you can, be open and communicative with your anesthesiologist (pain medication specialist), surgery team, and any nurses or support staff. This is especially the case if you’re feeling particularly anxious about the operation.

What to Bring

As with any major surgery, on the day of your treatment, you’ll need to come to the hospital prepared. Depending on the case, patients will generally spend about three to five days recovering in the hospital. Among the important considerations is what to bring along. Here’s a quick breakdown of what you should have with you:

  • Medications: Make sure to bring any medications you’re prescribed with you and have a list of what you’re taking on hand. They’ll let you know if you should continue the medication while in the hospital.
  • Insurance information: While you’ll typically have pre-clearance from your insurance provider to undergo this procedure, make sure to bring your insurance information with you when you go in. It’s also a good idea to bring along your identification, such as a driver's license.
  • Sanitary/personal items: Pack a bag with a robe, slippers, and your toiletry items. These won’t be necessary until after you leave the intensive care unit for recovery, so you may want to have a friend or relative bring them to you at that point.
  • Storage cases: If you have dentures, or wear contacts or glasses, make sure to bring their appropriate storage case.
  • Health proxy: A health proxy is a legal document that establishes a trusted person you select as capable of making important medical decisions if you cannot. It’s worth establishing someone for this role. In addition, you should also pick a family member or loved one to serve as a spokesperson for you and who is a point of contact for the medical team.
  • Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine: If you’re using a CPAP machine to help you breathe, make sure to bring that along.

Pre-Op Lifestyle Changes

To help promote positive outcomes after open heart surgery, your healthcare provider will also advise you about lifestyle changes you’ll need to make. Taking the following steps will make the operation safer and recovery smoother.

  • Prevent illness: If you get sick during the run-up to your surgery, make sure to let your healthcare provider know as soon as possible. The presence of other health conditions can make this surgery more dangerous, and sometimes these conditions will need to be cleared up prior to the operation. If possible, stay away from people who are showing signs of being sick.
  • Quit smoking: Smoking tobacco severely impacts the timing and progress of recovery from surgery. Therefore, it’s absolutely essential that, if you are a smoker, you figure out a way to quit the habit. Alongside your healthcare provider, there are many resources out there to assist in this difficult process, and many hospitals, themselves, have tobacco treatment services.
  • Think about nutrition: A well-balanced and healthy diet—one rich in protein and essential vitamins, phytonutrients, and minerals—can also help improve open heart surgery outcomes. Prior to surgery, your healthcare provider may even give you some guidance and what you should and should not eat. As you prepare for surgery, keep in mind that the healthier you are overall, the better off you’ll be as you recover.

A Word From Verywell

There’s no denying that the prospect of open heart surgery can be concerning. However, because open heart approaches have a long history—and they’re conducted by very highly trained experts—these lifesaving operations are more successful now than they’ve ever been.

As you prepare for surgery, remember you, too, have the power to affect your outcome: be proactive about asking questions, listen carefully to any directions you are given, seek out the support of family and friends, and don’t be afraid to advocate for your needs. 

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6 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Massachusetts General Hospital, Corrigan Minehan Heart Center. Your heart surgery: what you need to know. 2015. 

  3. Columbia University Department of Surgery. Preparing for surgery. 2020. 

  4. American College of Surgeons. Medication and surgery: before your operation. Published 2019. 

  5. Harding M. Premedication. 2019. 

  6. Columbia University Department of Surgery. Discharge.2020.