After your coronary artery bypass graft (CABG) surgery is finished,
you will be transferred to a cardiac intensive care unit (CICU) or surgical ICU
so that specially trained hospital staff can monitor your condition. The
recovery process is different for every patient, so the amount of time you spend
in the specialized ward will vary.
When your need for monitoring decreases, you will be transferred to a
step-down unit in the hospital in preparation for your return home.
During your recovery from bypass surgery, you will hear one universal
theme: Everyone heals at a different pace. Your experience may vary from the
typical course discussed below.
General anesthesia is used during the CABG procedure, so you may
be unconscious for several hours after surgery. Exactly when you wake up
depends on a number of things. For example, additional medicines to control
complications during or after your surgery may keep you unconscious longer.
While you are still unconscious, you will probably be taken to the
intensive care unit, a special ward reserved for people who have just had
significant surgeries. You might be in this unit for 1 to 3 days. A
longer stay does not mean that your CABG surgery was not successful. It may
mean, for example, that it is taking more time for your anesthesia to wear off
or for fluid in your chest to drain.
As you wake up, you may notice several sensations. You will probably
feel very groggy. Anesthesia can make you feel nauseated, so your stomach may
feel queasy. You may also notice immediately that you cannot swallow or speak
because of the tube placed in your throat to help you breathe. You may also
hear a lot of noise: the equipment and monitors used in most intensive
care wards can make a lot of beeping noises.
Although the effects of anesthesia usually help with the discomfort
from CABG surgery, you still may experience some pain after you are awake. To
relieve this discomfort, your nurse will give you pain medicine through your
intravenous (IV) line directly after surgery.
When you become more alert, your doctor will prescribe pain
medicine. You may have a small machine that allows you to control when and
how much pain medicine you get, although this is more common after 24 to 48
hours. This machine (a PCA pump) has a device that you hold in your hand with a
button to press to start medicine flowing through your IV line.
When your condition has improved, you will be transferred from the
specialized ward to a normal cardiac care unit, sometimes called a step-down
unit. Most hospital step-down units have significantly fewer nurses and
monitoring personnel, so you are usually transferred there when:
The tube from the ventilator to your lungs helps you breathe during
your CABG surgery. Your doctor will remove this tube when you are conscious and
able to breathe on your own. Less frequently, you may be completely alert, yet
unable to breathe without a ventilator. This means that you have not yet
regained enough strength.
Your breathing tube reaches a long way down into your windpipe,
so you may need to exhale forcefully to help your respiratory
therapist remove it. Even if you have a strong gag reflex, the
tube's removal should not cause you to vomit, because the nasogastric tube,
also called an NG tube, will have drained any fluids from your stomach out
through your nose both during and after surgery.
When your doctor thinks you are ready, your NG tube will be removed
and you should be able to swallow food as well as medicines. A major step in
your recovery is switching from intravenous (by IV line) to oral (by mouth)
medicines. The ability to do this shows that you are fully conscious and are
at a certain level of medical independence. Your IV line will remain in even
though you are able to take pills.
You will have several tubes and monitors placed in and around your
body to monitor your progress during recovery. Careful monitoring is needed
after surgery to check for complications. Within a few days after you begin
your recovery, these tubes are usually removed. This shows that your recovery
is moving forward and you don't need to be watched as closely.
You may no longer need the urinary catheter that was placed in your
bladder. When you are in the step-down unit, you may be able to move in and out
of bed. Using a bathroom or bedpan to urinate may be more practical and
After you have been transferred to a step-down unit, you will most likely
be in the hospital only a few more days. During this time, your medical team
will continue to monitor your condition and watch for any complications that
may delay your return home. You will need to meet another set of criteria
before you can go home.
Other Works Consulted
Gray RJ, Sethna DH (2012). Medical management of the patient undergoing cardiac surgery. In RO Bonow et al., eds., Braunwald’s Heart Disease: A Textbook of Cardiovascular Medicine, 9th ed., vol. 2, pp. 1793–1810. Philadelphia: Saunders.
April 5, 2012
Rakesh K. Pai, MD, FACC - Cardiology, Electrophysiology
& Robert A. Kloner, MD, PhD - Cardiology
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