Heart and function monitors after surgery in intensive care. Photo by Mel.
So you are going to have heart bypass surgery. This post will be about what to expect after your surgery as you spend the next several months in recovery.
AT THE HOSPITAL
First day you’ll be in intensive care, legs up with a number of tubes and other sensors plugged into your body. These are all hooked up to monitors that track your health condition for the time you are there. The stay in intensive care is 24 to 48 hours. It was 36 hours for me.
The stuff plugged into you are gradually removed before you move to the recovery ward.
More than likely after your brief stay in intensive care you will be moved to a telemetry ward. There the hospital staff will monitor your progress. Doctors will occasionally visit you, encourage you to start eating and walking. Nurses are there all the time and help you with just about every aspect of early recovery. Nurses are the lifeblood of most hospitals. Without them the system would probably collapse.
While confined mainly to a bed you will be encouraged to eat, and especially walk. Nurses and other personnel may / will come and visit you to work on your basic motor skills such as standing and walking. You will need help to go to the bathroom or use the bedpan. I chose the bathroom all of the time…
Before that happened though you are hooked up to a catheter which takes care of the urinary functions for the short term. Later the thing is removed and you are free to use the bathroom. I don’t like catheters, especially when it goes in and even comes out. One word: pain.
Speaking of which.
PAIN will be your constant companion for quite some time. Pain will be apparent every time you cough. The intensity of the pain shortly after surgery is high. Your pain level for every cough will be in the area of 8 to 9 on the 10 point pain scale. The pain from coughing will gradually wane. Sneezing also brings about the same chest pain.
The cause of the pain is fluid buildup in the lungs and the fact that your chest pounds against the healing wounds of your ribcage which is located just above your heart (see Wounds below). I tried to suppress my coughing but that was futile. It could have made things worse. As my doctors told me, “cough it out”. Be sure to use the “heart pillow” every time you cough.
WALKING: From early on you are encouraged to walk. You will find walking to be difficult, especially in the beginning. Your walking range after surgery will be short. A walk around the hospital ward will be considered “good”. Walking helps build your strength and gives your newly repaired heart a workout. While in the hospital you are hooked up to a heart monitor that is tracked on computers in the telemetry area. That is kind of cool I think. I used to always like to walk around the telemetry area to check my vitals like pulse and respiration that was displayed on a large flatscreen monitor.
Walking in those first days after surgery will be slow, short and maybe labored. My heart rate was between 100 to 120 beats per minute (bpm) while I walked. While idle I think my heart rate was at around 92 bpm. It gets better as time goes on.
Daily walking will be a recommended activity after your discharge.
EATING: You probably won’t have much of an appetite shortly after surgery. But that improves in time. One thing about eating is that if you were a junk food junkie like me (which more than likely brought about my heart condition) you definitely will have to change your daily menu. Divorce yourself from sugary carbonated drinks, beef, pork, sweets, candies, hamburgers, etc. Think more fruits, vegetables, water and fish. I will write more about meals later.
MEDICATIONS: You will be given a lot of medications shortly after surgery. Nurses are good at being timely in administering your medications. Some will be given through tubes while others will be given in pill form. Before you are discharged from the hospital a long list of medications will be prescribed to you for home use during your recovery and beyond. Be sure to dutifully take your medications. They are vital to sustaining your heart and life.
TUBES AND STUFF: More than likely there will be several tubes stuck into your body. All of these were inserted while you were in surgery. Thankfully you were spared the pain of the insertion since you were under anesthetic at that time. However, the tubes will have to be removed during hospitalization. Some like the catheter and the one going into your chest will be briefly painful when they are removed. The chest tube looks kind of gross upon removal… yellow/brown slime coats it. Yeah, you needed to know that.
There will be at least 1 or 2 intravenous tubes inserted into your arms for blood testing and medication purposes. These will be removed shortly before discharge. From the times you are poked with needles, you will find that your arms will become bruised.
Since you may also be on blood thinning medications, the chances of being bruised increases even after your discharge.
WOUNDS: Everyone who goes through heart bypass surgery will have two major wounds on their body. The first and most obvious wound is the large cut that go from the top of your chest to the bottom just above your tummy. Surgeons cut this area of your chest to gain access to your heart. They also had to break the bones on your rib cage to get to your heart. After the bypass veins are placed around your heart the bones have to be mended with a wire mesh that will stay inside of you for the rest of your life. Then the wound is stitched. It looks pretty gross when you first see it after the big bandage is removed a few days after surgery. Think Frankenstein’s monster… heh. The chest wound will heal but will be a permanent scar on your body. The resulting scar is called “The Zipper” by many bypass survivors.
“The Zipper” and tube wound just below that. Photos by Jerry Stanfield.
The other major wound will be on your leg at the lower end of your thigh just above the knee (at least it was in my case). Basically it is a big hole where the surgeons extracted your own veins for insertion around your heart (hence the word “bypass”). There will be a small tube coming out of that for drainage after surgery which will be removed before discharge.
Taking care of your wounds and being mindful of the condition of your healing heart and ribcage will be an important part of your recovery. The ribcage takes a while to heal. Patients have to be mindful in following instructions to prevent the ribcage mesh from accidentally dislodging itself which would probably result in a medical emergency that will probably require surgery and hospitalization to repair.
The reason for much of the chest pain associated with coughing is attributed to that healing ribcage area.
Below the chest incision wound will likely be a hole from which the gross tube was removed. It will be bandaged and will take time to heal. You have to keep it cleaned and medicated until it heals. The healing time for this wound is about 2 to 3 months.
I think I covered most of the things that happen after surgery. This post ended up being about care during hospitalization. The next post will be about home care. Fun stuff.