Day of Heart Surgery


Be sure to arrive promptly, and try to get to the hospital a few minutes before you are scheduled to arrive.

It is a good idea to have mapped out your route to the hospital, anticipating traffic or other delays which might make you late. It also is important to know the right location in the hospital to check in.  Hospitals can be large and have confusing floorplans. Most hospitals have greeting areas with hospital representatives who will direct you to the right place.

Family members are usually allowed to stay with you and meet the anesthesiologist and surgical team. When you are ready for your surgery, your family will be directed to a waiting area.

General Anesthesia

General Anesthesia

Once your surgical team is ready, you will be taken to the operating room where your anesthesiologist will begin administering general anesthesia. 

Being put under general anesthesia is a serious but necessary part of your operation. Be sure to inform your anesthesiologist of any previous complications or concerns you have about undergoing general anesthesia.   

Once you are in the operating room, you will be put to sleep with medication administered by an anesthesiologist using a small IV.

Multiple IV lines will be required for surgery, a breathing tube will help you breathe while you’re asleep, and a catheter will be placed in your bladder to remove any urine. 

The catheter will still be in place when you wake up after surgery.

In the Operating Room

In the Operating Room

Knowing who will be in the operating room (OR) with you before arriving at the hospital can help put your mind at ease. In addition to your cardiothoracic surgeon, there likely will be at least five to six other people in the OR including: 

  • Cardiothoracic Surgeon - A medical doctor who specializes in surgical procedures of the heart, lungs, esophagus, and other organs in the chest 

  • Surgical Assistant - One of your surgeon’s partners, or perhaps a physician assistant or cardiothoracic surgical resident (if your surgery is at a university medical center); helps the main surgeon as needed during the operation
  • Nurses - Two or three nurses are usually present; one to handle the surgical instruments and other circulating the room providing supplies 
  • Anesthesiologist - Monitors your level of anesthesia throughout surgery 
  • Perfusionist - Runs the heart-lung machine 

Your heart specialist or cardiologist also may be in and out of the operating room, doing ultrasounds or echocardiograms of your heart to evaluate the quality of the repair. 


The Operation

The Operation

Depending on the exact type of heart surgery you are having, your cardiothoracic surgeon can choose from several different types of incisions. 

The most common incision, called a sternotomy, involves a straight cut down the center of your chest. This incision allows the best access to your heart and surrounding structures and blood vessels.

Minimally invasive incisions are shorter and more horizontal than a sternotomy. Before surgery, ask which incision is best for your individual operation.  

During the operation, you likely will be placed on a heart-lung machine (on-pump). This machine temporarily takes over the function of your heart and lungs during surgery to maintain blood circulation and oxygen flow through your body. After the surgery, you will be taken off the pump, and your heart and lungs will resume normal function. Some surgeons prefer to perform the surgery without a heart-lung machine (off-pump).

Your cardiothoracic surgeon will tell you the technique that will be used for your individual operation and provide additional details.

After the main part of the surgery is complete, drainage tubes will be placed in your chest and your sternum will be closed with surgical steel wires. These wires will stay in forever. They should not cause any problems and will not set off metal detectors. 

Learn more about what to expect After Heart Surgery.


Reviewed by Robbin G. Cohen, MD, MMM 
May 2017