How to Prepare for Open Heart Surgery

Open-heart surgery involves opening the chest with a large incision to expose the heart. It is a longstanding and widely-used surgical treatment for heart failure, heart attack, coronary artery disease, heart transplant, and atrial fibrillation (irregular, fast heart rate).

While some heart surgeries can be done minimally invasively by accessing the heart through small incisions and a camera on the left side of the ribs, that is not the case with open-heart surgery. Instead, a surgeon cuts through your sternum (breastbone) and your ribcage with open-heart surgery to have full access to your heart.

Next, the surgical team places your heart on a cardiopulmonary (heart-lung) bypass machine while they correct the problems. This machine gives your body blood and oxygen while your heart is stopped for the procedure.

Stopping your heart for surgery may sound scary, but the procedure is very common. More than one million heart surgeries worldwide used a heart-lung bypass machine each year.

This article explains what to expect if you need open heart surgery and how to prepare for the procedure.

Ventilator monitor ,given oxygen by intubation tube to patient, setting in ICU/Emergency room
Jackyenjoyphotography / Getty Images

Location

A cardiothoracic surgeon (specializing in the heart and lungs) performs open-heart surgeries. Surgeons use general anesthesia, which means you are fully asleep during the procedure.

Open heart surgeries happen in a specialized operating room in a hospital. After surgery, you recover in a cardiac care unit (CCU), an intensive care unit (ICU) devoted explicitly to cardiac care.

In addition, the operating room has a range of specialized equipment to assist with the procedure and keep you stable during treatment. Typically, this includes:

  • An intravenous catheter (IV) to administer medications and fluids
  • Chest tubes to drain fluid from the lungs
  • Foley catheter to drain urine
  • Ventilator to administer oxygen during the operation
  • Cardiac monitor to monitor heart rate and rhythm

Recap

Cardiothoracic surgeons perform open-heart surgery in a hospital operating room. You receive general anesthesia for this major surgery, which means you will be asleep for the procedure. People usually spend some time recovering in the ICU after open-heart surgery.

What to Wear

Since you’ll be under general anesthesia, you’ll need to change into the hospital’s dressing gown once you arrive.

Open heart surgery is an inpatient procedure, which means you will stay at the hospital afterward. Therefore, you will also want to bring pajamas or loungewear and a change of clothes for going home. It’s generally a good idea to opt for comfortable, loose-fitting garments.

In addition, your hospital may ask you to remove jewelry, makeup, nail polish, deodorant, piercings, glasses, and contact lenses. These specifics vary by location, so check with your surgeon if you have any questions. Someone in your surgeon’s office will go over your surgeon’s preferences and the hospital’s policies regarding what to wear and bring.

Food and Drink

Like with other surgeries, you’ll need to modify what you eat and drink before open-heart surgery. Your surgical team will instruct you when to stop eating and drinking—often at some point the night before.

They will also explain what you can and cannot eat before surgery. That means not having any snacks or water after the cutoff time. It’s essential to follow these instructions precisely so that food and drink do not interfere with anesthesia.

Medications

Some drugs can interfere with those used during surgery. Therefore, your surgical team will review your medication list before the surgery.

Tell your team about all medicines you take, including prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) medications, recreational drugs, supplements, and herbs.

If you take medications that affect blood clotting, such as blood thinners, aspirin and other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), and some herbs and supplements, your doctor may instruct you to stop taking them for some time before surgery to reduce the risk of bleeding.

Before surgery, your surgical team may administer antibiotics to reduce the likelihood of infection. In addition, if you are feeling anxious, talk to the anesthesiologist (pain medication specialist). They can give you something to help you relax until you receive general anesthesia to put you to sleep.

What to Bring

On the day of your surgery, you’ll want to bring the necessary documentation, medication, and things to keep you comfortable throughout your stay.

Some things to pack for your hospital stay include:

  • Your insurance card and ID
  • A complete list of all medications you take, including dosages
  • Medicines you currently take preferably in their original bottles
  • Comfortable clothes, like pajamas, robe, socks, underwear, and something to wear home
  • Glasses, if you wear them
  • Toiletries, like toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant, hairbrush, soap, shampoo
  • Electronics, like cell phone, laptop, tablets, and chargers
  • Books
  • Eye mask for sleep

Typically, people stay in the hospital for about three to five days after being transferred from the ICU to a regular hospital room. So, as you consider what to pack, think about things that bring you comfort, help you pass the time, and allow you to connect with people during your stay.

Pre-Op Lifestyle Changes

To help promote positive outcomes after open-heart surgery, your healthcare provider will also advise you about healthy choices you can make leading up to surgery. The following steps can help make any operation safer and recovery smoother.

  • Get adequate exercise
  • Get enough sleep
  • Eat nutritious food
  • Quit smoking

In addition, if you become ill before surgery, your procedure may need to be rescheduled. So take extra precautions to avoid exposure to illness. If you get sick during the run-up to your surgery, let your healthcare provider know as soon as possible.

Summary

Open heart surgery is an umbrella term for various heart surgeries that involve opening your chest to access the heart and correct problems. A cardiothoracic surgeon performs open-heart surgeries under general anesthesia in a hospital operating room.

The procedure is inpatient, which means you will stay overnight. You’ll spend the first nights of recovery in the ICU, then move to a regular room.

A Word From Verywell

It’s normal to feel anxious about open-heart surgery. However, being prepared with what to expect helps many people feel more at ease.

Talk to your surgeon about your concerns and questions. They can help you understand what to do before surgery to make the experience safe and comfortable. In addition, letting them know about your anxiety can ensure that you receive adequate pre-surgery medication to help you relax.

7 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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By Mark Gurarie
Mark Gurarie is a freelance writer, editor, and adjunct lecturer of writing composition at George Washington University.