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Heart Surgery

Care After Surgery

The Heart Surgery Recovery Pathway

The Heart Surgery Recovery Pathway shows what to expect while you’re in hospital and once you’re home.

Please ask for pain medicine before the pain gets too bad. When your pain is being managed, it’s easier to do your deep breathing and coughing exercises to keep your lungs clear.

You’ll also be able to move around better to prevent blood clots.

Managing Pain

It’s important that you’re as comfortable as possible.

  • Most people find their pain can be managed by acetaminophen (Tylenol) with codeine once they’re taking fluids.
  • You may be asked to rate your pain on a pain scale where 0 means no pain and 10 is the worst pain you can imagine.
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  • Tell your nurse if your pain reaches a 4, or isn’t being helped by the pain medicine.

Deep Breathing and Coughing

  • Deep breathing, coughing, and getting up to move soon after surgery lowers the risk of pneumonia and blood clots. It’s uncomfortable to do at first, but does get easier.
  • The physical therapist and nurse will ask you often to do deep breathing and coughing exercises. Try to take 10 slow, deep breaths every hour.
  • To protect your chest incision, you’ll be given a heart-shaped support pillow or flannel blanket to hold. Always hold your support pillow or blanket against your chest incision when you cough or sneeze.
  • If you’ve have an incentive spirometer (IS), use it every hour to help you do your deep breathing exercises.
  • After the deep breathing exercises, sit up straight and hold your support pillow to your chest incision. Then take a deep breath and cough firmly. If you cough up some mucous, clear it into a tissue, and repeat the cough until no more mucous is coming up.

Your Incisions

  • The dressing on your chest and on your arm or leg (if you had a CABG) may be taken off after 2 or 3 days.
  • The incisions are cleaned and new dressing put on as needed.
  • To help stop germs use the alcohol-based hand rubs that you can find all over the hospital. Or you can wash your hands well with soap and water.
  • If you aren’t sure if your healthcare provider has cleaned their hands before they came to see or assess you, it’s okay to ask them about it.

It’s normal for incisions to:

  • look slightly red
  • feel tender, uneven, bumpy, numb, tight, like they’re pulling, or itchy
  • drain a small amount of clear or yellow fluid


When you are ready you’ll be able to have a shower.

  • Make sure the water isn’t too hot.
  • Don’t aim the spray at your incisions. Let the water flow over your incisions without soaking them.
  • Gently pat the incisions dry. Don’t rub them.

Caring for Your Bowels

  • Even though you haven’t eaten much, you may feel full a few days after your surgery. You’ll be given stool softeners or a laxative to help your bowels to move. Tell your nurse if the softener or laxative doesn’t help.
  • You need to have at least 1 bowel movement before you’re discharged from hospital.


Your body needs more protein and other nutrients to help you heal after surgery.

It’s common not to feel hungry for as long as 10 days after surgery. Even though you may not feel like eating, it’s important that you do.

Ask to speak to a dietitian if you have questions about food or are worried about not feeling hungry. Your diet will be changed from fluids to more solid food depending on how you feel. Your doctor may put you on a low salt diet while you’re in the hospital.

Tips that may help you get enough nutrition:
  • Eating small meals and snacks but often, during the day.
  • Try to eat more foods with protein, such as meats, fish, poultry, eggs, milk products, nuts and nut butters, and legumes.
  • Use Ensure, Boost, Carnation Breakfast Essentials™, or other nutrition supplement drinks if you find that you’re not hungry or aren’t eating enough.

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