Bypass surgery isn't as traumatic and disabling as it used to be. In some cases doctors can perform a bypass while the heart is still beating, an advance that can shorten recovery time and reduce the risk of complications.
Relatively young patients with simple blockages and few health problems tend to have the smoothest operations and quickest recoveries.
Shorter hospital stays
If all goes especially well, some patients may be allowed to go home in as little as three days post-op. A 2007 study found that patients who get released early after bypass surgery have no more complications than those who stay longer.
In addition to a quicker return to home-cooking, patients who get out early have another advantage: They end up requiring about $1,800 less in medical care in the 60 days after leaving the hospital.
Still, it usually takes a full five days to go home, as John Maiorana, of Virginia Beach, Va., discovered when he had quadruple bypass surgery 10 years ago at age 55.
"I sat on the recliner for a couple of days after that, feeling very vulnerable" says Maiorana. "I was walking on eggs. But after a while, I decided my heart was repaired."
The pain can be surprising
A quadruple bypass in 2004 taught Tammy Estep, now 50, a hard-won lesson about traditional bypass surgery: No matter how much a person worries ahead of timeand she worried plentythe aftermath comes as a shock. "Doctors can't tell you how your body will feel," says the Buffalo, N.Y., resident. "It's something that you have to experience for yourself." Not that you'll ever want to, says a heart patient in this video.
Estep's recovery included constipation, a side effect of her pain medications. But her big problem was the itchy, painful, eight-inch gash through the center of her sternum. "It's not the heart that takes time to recover," she says. "It's the incision."
Cardiac rehab speeds recovery
The slowness of Maiorana's recovery pushed him to attend a cardiac rehabilitation program at his local hospital. The supervised exercise and nutrition counseling armed him for the recovery ahead.
Now he runs and lifts weights several times each week. He also sticks to a healthy, low-fat diet to protect his arteries and reduce the chance that he'll ever have to have his chest opened again.