What Happens in a Cardiac Care Unit?

Patient in hospital
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After a heart attack or major cardiac surgery, patients typically are treated in a hospital's cardiac care unit, or CCU, which offers highly specialized care until their condition stabilizes.

The equivalent of an intensive care unit, or ICU, which is for critically ill patients with other types of conditions, a CCU contains extensive heart monitoring and testing equipment as well as a staff trained and certified in heart conditions and procedures and their aftermath.

More than 300,000 Americans undergo coronary bypass surgery each year, whereas another 920,000 suffer a first or subsequent heart attack, and 80 million people overall have some type of cardiovascular disease. Consequently, the CCU—which is also known as the coronary care unit—tends to be a busy place.

Average Length of Time in CCU

The average stay in a CCU is five days, after which most patients are transferred to a hospital's step-down unit for less intensive care.

After step-down care, patients are usually discharged, often beginning cardiac rehabilitation programs, which help patients make changes in diet, exercise and other lifestyle factors for at least several months.

Visitors Limited in CCU

Like normal ICUs, CCUs are designed to limit stress to patients during the initial, critical phase of their treatment. Visitors are typically restricted to immediate family members, and visiting hours are often limited to two or three short periods of time per day.

Food and other items brought from outside the hospital, such as plants and flowers, are usually prohibited as well. Patients in CCUs tend to be on supervised diets, and plants can introduce potential infection-causing bacteria into the environment.

Heart Monitoring in CCU

Often, patients are hooked up to wires and tubes during their CCU stays, which can prove disconcerting to family members but is necessary for close monitoring.

All patients are connected to heart monitors, and some patients also require ventilators to assist their breathing. Additionally, a variety of tests are often done during a stay in the CCU, such as blood work or electrocardiograms, which measures the electrical activity of the heart. Many different cardiac medications may be given, including those to treat heart failure or to reduce the workload of the heart.

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