After Congenital Heart Surgery


In most cases, your son/daughter will go to an Intensive Care Unit (ICU) immediately after the operation. There, a specialized team of experts in pediatric heart care will watch over your child, assisted by the most sophisticated monitoring equipment.

Your child may be sedated and on a breathing machine after the operation until it is safe to breathe on his/her own. He/she may also have small catheters inserted into arteries and veins in order to measure blood pressure and give medications. Your child may have small chest tubes that drain a normal amount of bloody fluid and help keep the lungs expanded. Pain medicines and sedatives will frequently be given in order to keep your son/daughter as comfortable as possible. 

The ICU can seem like a very technical and even frightening place. The ICU nurses, doctors, and staff are experts at taking care of children during the most important part of the post-operative period. The ICU staff will keep you informed about your child’s progress and explain the treatment plan and equipment. Please feel free to ask questions.

In the Hospital

In the Hospital

Your child’s progress will help the team decide how long he/she stays in the ICU. When the care team thinks your son/daughter no longer needs intensive monitoring, he/she will be transferred to the step-down unit. The staff in this unit has special training in the care of children who have had heart surgery. The heart surgeon, cardiologist, nurse practitioner, nurse care manager, and care coordinator will continue to plan your child’s care until discharge.

Going Home

Going Home

Your child’s nurse will give you printed instructions for care at home after the surgery. These instructions cover care of the incision, what activities are permitted, diet restrictions, medications, when to notify the doctors (surgeon, cardiologist, or pediatrician) and follow-up appointments. Once again, do not hesitate to ask questions about anything that you don’t understand, especially special circumstances that you think apply to your child’s condition. 


Many hospitals have people called “Navigators,” who specialize in making the hospital process easy on you. If your hospital has a navigator or nurse practitioner specially designated to answer your questions, make sure you get his/her phone number and find out when he/she is available to answer questions. Once you are home, don’t hesitate to call if you have new questions or concerns. Make a list of questions to ask when you return to your surgeon’s office for routine post-operative visits. 

Follow-Up Appointments

Your son/daughter will return to the hospital for at least one checkup with the surgical team in the first 1-2 weeks after going home. During this appointment, the team will check your child’s incision and remove any remaining stitches.

You also need to schedule a follow-up appointment with the cardiologist and pediatrician in the first few weeks after going home. A full medical summary of your child’s surgery will be sent to your pediatrician and cardiologist, who will continue to coordinate your child’s care at home.

If your son/daughter needs any medical equipment to return home, your nurse and care coordinator will work closely with you to order it. He/She will arrange home nursing visits, if needed.

Please call your surgeon’s office at any time if your child has any of the following symptoms:

  • Fever
  • Redness
  • Swelling
  • Drainage at the incision site

You know your son/daughter best. It is important for you to be part of the planning for his/her discharge. It helps with the recovery process.


Reviewed by Lauren C. Kane, MD
June 2018