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The High-Tech Heart: What to Expect from Bypass Surgery

separator When arteries become so clogged with cholesterol deposits that the heart cannot get the blood and oxygen it needs for normal functioning, your cardiologist may recommend coronary artery bypass surgery. This surgery creates new routes for blood to travel to the heart.

How bypass surgery is performed
Most commonly, during bypass procedures the surgeon removes part of a long vein from your leg to make the new passageway for blood. Sometimes the surgeon will use a small artery from your chest to create the bypass. This is most commonly done when arteries in the front of the heart are blocked.

It’s common for patients to need more than one bypass. That’s what is meant when you hear terms like “quadruple bypass surgery,” “triple bypass surgery,” etc. Bypass surgery usually takes from three to six hours to perform.

Recovery from Bypass Surgery
Recovery from bypass surgery depends on your individual case. Many patients get back into their normal routines in about six to eight weeks. During your recovery, it’s normal to have a lot of ups and downs.

  • Your emotions may not be steady. You may feel sad or depressed, angry or afraid. Family members may struggle with these feelings also. Don’t hesitate to talk to one of your healthcare providers for guidance with any emotional problems. Getting help early on can speed your recovery process.
  • You may feel fairly strong one day, then extremely tired or weak the next. This is normal. Make sure you and your doctor or other healthcare provider have figured out a plan for you to gradually become more and more active as your recovery progresses.
  • Your appetite may not be very good. As you become stronger, your appetite will return, so be sure that you and your healthcare team have worked out an eating plan that will be healthy for your heart.

It’s also important that you learn how to take care of your incision as it heals. Get good instructions from your healthcare team about taking baths and showers, looking for signs of infection, etc.

Talk with your doctor about any concerns
It’s normal to feel nervous about having bypass surgery. It’s extremely important that you talk about any concerns you have with your cardiologist and the surgeon who will be performing the procedure.

Before you return home, ask your doctor about the kinds of things that would be considered emergencies. For example, find out what kind of pain is a normal part of the recovery process and what is cause for alarm. What is a sign of infection and what is simply a sign of healing? Write these things down—it’s easy to forget things in the days after you’ve had an operation. If a spouse or other family member or friend can be with you, that can help too. It’s always good to have a second set of ears listening to the doctor’s advice.

Men and women seem to recover from bypass surgery about equally. A study conducted by researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School revealed that at least 79 percent of women and 86 percent of men rated their health as good, very good or excellent six months after the surgery.

In recovery, tightly manage your coronary disease risk factors
Even though bypass surgery can restore blood flow to the heart, don’t forget that the surgery does not cure coronary artery disease. The risk factors for heart disease that you had before the procedure are the same after the procedure unless you change them. Work with your healthcare team to get your risk as low as possible:

  • If you have high blood pressure or high cholesterol, keep them under control by following your treatment regimen.
  • If you have diabetes, make sure you control your blood sugar.
  • If you smoke, it’s crucial to stop.
  • Stick with your scheduled appointments with your healthcare providers.

The more actively you manage your disease, the better your chances of preventing further problems. Be sure to reach out to your healthcare team and your friends and family to get all the help you need.

It’s also important to be socially active. Studies have shown that people who have active social lives tend to take better care of themselves. So stay connected. Join clubs or church groups, and pick up the telephone often to arrange get-togethers with friends.

The American Heart Institute; Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA); December 13, 1995; The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; Texas Heart Institute, Heart Owner’s Handbook. Johan Wiley and Sons, New York, New York, 1996; Preventive Medicine 2000;30:83-92.
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