Open Heart Surgery


What You Need to Know About Open Heart Surgery

Heart surgery corrects problems that affect the heart’s structure and blood vessels. In open heart surgery, surgeons open the chest wall to directly access the heart. This remarkable procedure helps thousands of people every single day.

At Aurora Health Care, our surgeons perform more than 1,500 cardiac surgery procedures every year. Our cardiovascular teams use the latest techniques to skillfully restore people’s heart health.

We are devoted to our work – helping you regain your active life and a healthy heart.

World-Class Care

Open Heart Surgery for Heart Disease

We do more cardiac surgery procedures than anyone in the region. People throughout Wisconsin, northern Illinois and the rest of the U.S. come to Aurora Health Care for superior heart surgery.

That experience means you will benefit from:

  • Expert surgeons and cardiologists: Many of our doctors are known for their dedication and skill. We have expertise in treating conditions with heart surgery, including bypass surgery, valve surgery and care following a heart attack. Learn more about our services and treatment.
  • Caring, personalized treatment: Our medical teams, including doctors, surgeons, nurses and everyone else who takes care of you, believe in providing care for you as an individual. Together, we’ll provide seamless, comprehensive care. Meet our cardiovascular and thoracic team.
  • Innovators in heart and vascular procedures: We’ve been on the frontlines of some of the most significant innovations in cardiovascular surgery. We are leaders in techniques to replace valves and implant devices such as ventricular assist devices (VADs) and heart pumps.
  • The latest facilities, technology and equipment: Our surgeons and electrophysiologists (specialists in the heart’s electrical system) work together to provide the best care. By closely cooperating, we can minimize your recovery time and provide more successful cardiac surgery outcomes. Read more about interventional cardiology.
  • Latest treatments: Our surgeons are involved in clinical trials and cardiovascular research. That means we’re at the forefront of technology and techniques used in open heart procedures. Find out about our clinical trials and cardiovascular research.

Learn more about the care we provide in the Donald and Rosemary Tendick, Sr., Clinic for Advanced Heart Failure Therapies.

What to Expect

What to Expect When You Have Open Heart Surgery

Your doctors, nurses and the rest of your cardiac care team will go over your open heart surgery in detail. They can explain everything clearly to you and answer all your questions and concerns.

Preparing for Heart Surgery

In the days or weeks before your surgery, your doctor will have you undergo some tests to prepare for your procedure. You may need to come to the hospital for these tests.

Your pre-operative tests may include:

  • Cardiac catheterization to check for blockages in the heart’s blood vessels (if you haven’t had this test recently)
  • Carotid ultrasound to check the neck arteries for blockages, which could interfere with blood flow to the brain and increase the risk of stroke
  • Chest X-rays to help identify lung or heart abnormalities before surgery
  • Dental examination, unless you have had one recently, so that you can resolve any dental infections to keep you safe during your surgery
  • Heart ultrasound (echocardiogram) to check your heart muscle strength and heart valve function
  • Electrocardiogram (EKG) to check your heart rate and rhythm
  • Lab testing, including blood work, to check your kidney, liver and thyroid function and your blood type, in case you need a blood transfusion during surgery

Before Your Heart Surgery

You’ll need to stop taking certain medications before your surgery. We may give you special instructions about diabetes and blood pressure medications, diuretics (water pills) and blood thinners.

The day before your surgery, you’ll need to:

  • Wash your chest and legs using a special antibacterial soap to prevent infection.
  • Clip your chest and/or leg hair.
  • Stop eating or drinking anything after midnight.

The Day of Your Heart Surgery

The morning of your surgery, plan to arrive about 2 hours before your scheduled surgery time. Bring your medications with you. If your doctor asks you to take any medications before you arrive, do so with just a small sip of water.

When you’re ready for surgery, we will take you to the pre-op holding area. There, you’ll meet the anesthesiologist – the doctor who specializes in providing medications to relieve pain and put you to sleep.

As you wait for your procedure, a nurse can answer any questions. We’ll also place an IV (intravenous line) into a blood vessel in your arm to deliver antibiotics, drugs that fight bacterial infection.

Preparing for Heart Surgery

We use general anesthesia for open heart surgery. You’ll be completely asleep while we prepare you for surgery and during the procedure.

During the surgery prep:

  • Your anesthesiologist will put in a central line, a large IV for delivering medications and monitoring your heart function during the procedure.
  • Another line will monitor your blood pressure. 
  • You’ll be connected to a breathing machine.
  • A catheter will empty your bladder.

The Open Heart Surgery Procedure

Your procedure is likely to take three to five hours, depending on what’s being done. In general, open heart surgery includes these steps:

  1. Your surgeon will make an incision about 7 to 8 inches long down the middle of your breastbone. In some instances, we can use a shorter incision.
  2. We’ll connect you to a heart-lung bypass machine. This machine allows the surgeon to safely stop your heart. The machine keeps your blood circulating during surgery. Specially trained perfusion technologists oversee the heart-lung machine while the surgeon works.
  3. We’ll perform your heart procedure, often with the heart resting, but sometimes while it continues to beat.
  4. We’ll let your heart recover spontaneously and remove the heart-lung machine, if we used it during the procedure.
  5. We’ll also place temporary pacemaker wires. They give your heart extra support if your heart beats too slowly or develops an abnormal rhythm.
  6. The surgeon will place drainage tubes in your chest cavity to remove blood and fluid.
  7. After surgery is complete, the surgeon will mend your breastbone with metal wires called sternal wires. We close your skin with sutures, special glue or, in some cases, staples.

After Open Heart Surgery

In the hours after your open heart surgery:

  1. We’ll move you to the intensive care unit (ICU).
  2. The breathing tube will stay in place until you wake up from the anesthesia.
  3. We’ll monitor your blood pressure, oxygen levels, temperature and heart rhythm. We’ll adjust your medication as needed.
  4. We’ll remove your breathing tube when you wake up. When your heart rhythm and blood pressure have stabilized, you’ll move from the ICU to a regular room.
  5. In your new room, we’ll stop the IV pain medication. You’ll get pain pills instead. We’ll decrease your dosage as your pain improves.

Read about other people’s experiences with cardiac surgery in our patient stories.


Getting Your Health Back After Open Heart Surgery

It’s important to get up and moving soon after any surgery, including open heart surgery. Being active helps prevent complications such as pneumonia and blood clots.

You can expect to begin an exercise program the day after surgery. Our cardiac rehabilitation experts will work with you to tailor a program to your overall health and abilities. You may also work with physical and occupational therapists as part of the plan to increase your strength and mobility.

Preparing To Go Home

You’ll probably be in the hospital for four to six days after surgery. During that time:

  • We’ll monitor your health to make sure your condition is stable.
  • We’ll remove drainage tubes that help relieve fluid buildup after surgery.
  • We’ll remove temporary pacing wires. The surgeons may have placed them to help regulate your heartbeat and prevent arrhythmia.

You’re ready to go home when:

  • Your heart rate, heart rhythm and blood pressure are stable.
  • You’re off oxygen.
  • You can control your pain with medications.
  • You can safely move around.

Your doctor will schedule follow-up appointments to monitor your progress after surgery.

We recommend that you continue cardiac rehabilitation to regain your strength. We offer cardiac rehab at locations throughout eastern Wisconsin. Find out more about our cardiac rehabilitation programs.

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