When your surgery’s finished, hospital staff will take you to the intensive care unit.
It may take you several hours to wake up properly after the procedure. When you do, you won’t be able to speak because you’ll have a breathing tube. You’ll also be connected to a ventilator to help you breathe. The breathing tube and ventilator may feel uncomfortable and may be removed once you’re awake properly, but you may still need to wear an oxygen mask or nasal prongs for a day or more.
You’ll also have chest drainage tubes and a catheter to drain your bladder. You may remain connected to a temporary pacemaker. Nurses will usually remove the drainage tubes the next day.
You’ll have an IV line for delivering analgesics, fluids and medications.
You’ll be fitted with special compression stockings to wear on both legs. You may also be given calf pumps which inflate intermittently. The stockings and calf pumps are designed to help reduce your risk of deep vein thrombosis. You’ll also be given blood-thinning drugs to further reduce your risk.
Nurses will closely monitor your breathing and vital signs.
You’ll be given pain relief prescribed by your anaesthetist and/or intensive care physician. It’ll help you to move and breathe without too much discomfort which can help reduce your risk of complications.
Patient controlled analgesia (PCA) is often used when you first wake up. It’s an opiate drug delivered through a cannula into a vein. You can control the amount of pain relief you receive by pressing a button.
Injections of pain relieving medication can be delivered by cannula or into a muscle.
Pain relief in the form of tablets or liquids can be given at regular times, or when pain starts to bother you.
Getting mobile, eating and drinking
You may be surprised that your nurses will encourage you to sit out of bed and stand up the day after surgery. You’ll usually be helped into a chair, and possibly take a small walk. This is to speed up your recovery and reduce your risk of complications.
Nurses will also encourage you to take deep breaths and a physiotherapist will help you with exercises that expand your lungs. Because of your incision, this may be painful.
The nurses and physiotherapist will give you instructions on how to take care of the incision in your chest.
You’ll be able to start drinking and possibly eating very light meals the day after your surgery.
You’ll most likely stay in the intensive care ward for 1 or 2 nights and then you’ll be moved to the cardiac ward. Your hospital stay will be around 5 to 7 days.
Your surgeon may recommend that you take part in a cardiac rehabilitation program to help your recovery and strengthen your heart. This may mean staying in a cardiac rehab unit for a couple of weeks before going home. Alternatively, you could do outpatient cardiac rehab, a program that you attend for 1 to 3 days each week depending on the facility’s schedule. If travel is difficult you could access an online rehab program.
A rehab program is a proven, well-organised way of speeding your recovery. Rehab will also help you to develop skills to improve your health. It’s important to check with your surgeon before starting any rehab program.
Rehab has big benefits
People who attend rehab after heart valve replacement surgery halve their chance of having a cardiac event, and the chance of dying is reduced by 30%.
What happens in rehab?
You’ll probably be offered one-on-one therapy as well as group therapy. The staff will assist you with physical activity, education, counselling and help with healthy lifestyle changes. You’ll be monitored throughout the program.
The Heart Foundation has a rehab services directory where you can find a cardiac rehab service near you.
Before starting any rehab program, check if you’re eligible to claim for it through your health insurance.