Heart Surgery: What Family Members Should Expect

Open Heart Surgery: What Family Members Should Expect

I do not represent all the open heart patients in the world, but I've gone through at least four in my family, including my own. As a patient, if we are lucky, the physician will prep us for open heart surgery through education and discussion. If you're like me, you don't get that. It comes as a surprise; a life saving surprise.

I've learned a great deal from this experience. But more importantly my family members have learned a lot as well. Terms like cholesterol, LDL, HDL, Lipitor, A1c, diabetes, cardio cath, thallium stress test, and EKG are more common in my house than saying good morning. Throughout the last few years of recovery, I've come to realize that family members were never prepped for the surgery. Usually, the first time they see their loved one after the surgery, they are shocked.

Lines, IV and other life sustaining lines, chest tubes, catheters, bandages, and staples cover their loved ones. It's a hard thing to look at. it's even worse, when we, the patients can't communicate back because our eyes are pasted down and we've got a ventilator tube shoved down our throat. But there is hope in recovery.

I would like to share a few things that I feel family members should know as they look upon us, the patients, when we are recovering from open heart surgery in the CICU, cardiac intensive care unit. At least for me, this is what I experienced.

I Can Hear You

I could not believe it at first, but immediately after the surgery, I heard everyone in the room talking. I could not talk back and my eyes were pasted shut. But, I heard everything. So, to communicate, I held my thumb up like the football players do when they are carted off the field. I was fortunate that I could do that as I wanted so badly to let them know I could hear them.

Pain Comes Later

No matter how bad I looked coming out of surgery, I actually felt very little pain. The anesthesia was so strong that I barely felt my own face. As the anesthesia wears off, then the pain starts to come. Ironically, it was not on my chest where the staples were. It was in my back. It was so painful I could not lie down flat. For the next two weeks I had to sleep on an incline. I even had to buy a recliner at home in order to sleep.

No Confidence

I equate open heart surgery to getting hit by a truck, then run over by a bulldozer. Basically, any confidence I had prior to the surgery was gone. I had to rebuild my self esteem, my belief system, my ego, my confidence, and my life. I learned that little steps to my family members, like walking up a flight of stairs, was a monumental journey for me. So even if I move slow, the important thing is I'm moving forward.


There is no doubt that open heart surgery is a big event. It takes at least four hours, requires complex machines, instruments, and very skilled surgeons to fix a heart. With that said, the procedure is far from perfect so family members should expect setbacks. These can be something like adjusting the medication, to feeling heart disease symptoms, to having to return to the hospital to have additional treatment. No two people are the same so the surgeries are never going to be exact in outcomes.


The last area a family member should be aware of is support. The little things matter. In recovery, the smallest things mattered. This could as simple as tying my shoes or cooking dinner, but getting positive reinforcement and support made all the difference in the world.

Open heart surgery was such a big even for me that my wife actually used the date of the surgery as my second birthday. We celebrate a rebirth on that day. I could not have made it this far without all the support from my wife and other family members. I hope this article will help others to see a perspective on open heart surgery that they might, hopefully, never see as a patient.

American Heart Association

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Comments 5 comments

mitzi 5 years ago

i have had surgery 4 months ago i am very depress for i still feel uneasy with my valve afraid what could go wrong cry all the time feel old and scared

mitzi 5 years ago

i feel very depress cry all the time and feels no body care or do they understand my fefeling so depress i am back at work but i still feel unhappy and scared my ankles swll and i am watching what i eat but feel fat maybe hlding fluid

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surfcaster2010 5 years ago from Northeast USA Author

Mitzi, So sad to hear that you feel that way. It does take time. Even now, more than 4 years later, I still struggle with everyday things, but just try to stay positive.

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surfcaster2010 5 years ago from Northeast USA Author

Mitzi, So sad to hear that you feel that way. It does take time. Even now, more than 4 years later, I still struggle with everyday things, but just try to stay positive.

Duck3 5 years ago

Mitzu It is a long long process. Very serious operation. No one can compare to heart surgery. This is your life. You will get better I have had 3 unable to have any more as of my age and no more they can do for me. I am doing well and plan to continue my life and enjoy every minute of the day. I am fine and it does take a very very long time to get back to normal if that is what you call it. But it will happen and remember you are ALIVE and as time goes on you will be better and you have to cheer up and enjoy life as you have a second chance at life to enjoy it to your fullest and do everything you want to do and don't hold back on anything.. Do it all. Time will heal and you will be back to yourself maybe not as quick but you must enjoy your LIFE to the fullest and be glad you are alive. You and all of us know what you are going thru but you have to make the decision you are going to move on and everyday is a blessing. You will be in my prayers. It does get better. Take care.

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