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“What Are Those Big Heart-Shaped Pillows Used For?” Asks Alice

Posted by Adam Pick on April 15th, 2011

Alice just sent me a great question about the use of heart-shaped pillows after heart valve surgery. She writes, “Hi Adam,  I’m 61-years old and preparing for a mitral valve repair due to mitral regurgitation disease. I can’t help but notice the huge pillows clutched by patients in several photos across your website. What are those used for? Thanks, Alice”

In case you have yet to see them, here are four pictures of heart valve surgery patients (David Swendson, Anita Devine, Carla Hansen and John Turan) which feature these unique, heart-shaped pillows.

Patients Holding Big Red Pillow After Heart Surgery
Heart Valve Surgery Patients – David Swendson,
Anita Devine, Carla Hansen & John Turan

To answer Alice’s question… These pillows are typically offered to patients for sternum support while coughing after surgery. As you may know, during most heart valve procedures, select breathing and circulatory functions are simulated using a ventilator and a heart-lung machine. Unfortunately, vapor can settle in the patient’s lungs.

Patients use an incentive spirometer (shown below) to reduce lung vapor and restore proper lung function in the hours, the days and the weeks after surgery.

Incentive Spirometer – Used To Restore
Lung Function After Heart Valve Surgery

Often times, the vapor is coughed up in the form of phlegm. As you cough, the lungs can expand putting pressure on your sternum and rib cage. Ultimately, coughing can stress the sternal wires that hold your chest together. If the coughing pressure is not properly supported, pain and other complications can occur.

To negate these unwanted patient experiences, heart-shaped pillows are used to support the patient’s chest as they cough.  As Dr. Eric Roselli, staff surgeon from the Cleveland Clinic, shared with me:

Dr. Eric Roselli of Cleveland Clinic

It certainly is critically important to cough and sigh and take deep breaths during the recovery phase to recruit alveoli, the small air filled spaces in the lung, to optimize full lung expansion and thereby reduce the risks of pneumonia, pleural effusions and other respiratory complications.  Breathing deeply and coughing can be difficult after chest surgery because of incisional pain. The pillows (we also have ones shaped like lungs for those having undergone lung surgery) help to give the patients some comfort when doing the respiratory exercises.

Additionally, these pillows are sometimes used by patients while driving — to protect their sensitive sternums against the discomfort of seat belts.

Protecting Patient From Seatbelt In Car After Heart Surgery

I hope this helps Alice (and perhaps you) learn more about the use of heart-shaped pillows after heart valve surgery.

Keep on tickin!

Adam Pick
Written by Adam Pick A dad, a husband and a patient, Adam Pick founded this website in 2006 to educate you about heart valve surgery from diagnosis to recovery.
You can get the latest updates about heart valve surgery from Adam at his Facebook, and Twitter pages. Click here to email him.


W.D.Brown says on April 15th, 2011 at 1:56 pm

I sure used mine every time I even thought I was going to cough or sneeze I would grab my pillow and hold it as tight as I could with out it hurting, it sure did help. Be sure to use your Spirometer.
Good luck andGod Bless


Merilee Brown says on April 15th, 2011 at 2:17 pm

My heart pillow was a great invention that I have used a number of ways. I used it to hug tightly when I got up from a lying down position. I used it when I had to cough. I used it to protect myself from the seatbelt and finally it has become a thoughtful souvenir of this whole surgery experience.


Betsey Hilbe says on April 15th, 2011 at 2:17 pm


All of these rationales for the heart pillow are true, PLUS, I found mine a great way to remember the location of my seat on the flight back to California from Cleveland.



Don Hull says on April 15th, 2011 at 2:28 pm

Great answer, Adam. My pillow and I became “best friends” during my recovery. I gave it lots of hugs.


Sylvia Woolworth says on April 15th, 2011 at 3:13 pm

Hi Alice,
I loved my heart pillow, taking it with me everywhere. It was like a security blanket, and it helped when I coughed. I put a pillowcase over it and hugged it in bed every night. I also used it in the car, under my seatbelt. I even made an extra one to keep in the car. Since I enjoy sewing, I had some extra material and made a round pillow stuffed with plastic bags from the supermarket. I’m sure your doctor will give you one, and I wish you the best when you have your surgery.
My piggy aortic valve is two years old this month.


Diane Horsak says on April 15th, 2011 at 5:25 pm

I still use my heart pillow when I first get up in the mornings. It’s also there like a security blanket. It really has been my best BUDDY since I had my valve (Bovine) put in. Good luck & God Bless. Diane


Tim Mangum says on April 15th, 2011 at 7:47 pm

While in hospital and for a couple of weeks to months after surgery, your heart pillow will be your best friend. You will use he spirometer and the RT and RN will want you to cough. You will only do it one time without the pillow. You will also want it in case you sneeze.

I’m almost 1 year post-op and I still use my pillow everyone in a while.

Good luck on your surgery and let the medical professionals take care of you,


Ricky (a female) says on April 15th, 2011 at 9:23 pm

Best wishes to you Alice on a speedy recovery.I to used my heart pillow when in bed,when sneezing or coughing,etc….I gave mine to a friend who’s outcome was not good unfortunately.Because of other complications. HOWEVER,may God bless and protect you,and make yours a speedy recovery. KEEP TICKIN EVERYBODY!!


Shari says on April 16th, 2011 at 3:43 pm

At Good Samaritan Hospital here in Cincinnati they give Teddy Bears call “Sir Koff-a-Lot”. Like the heart pillows featured in the photos, he is designed to offered the support needed when you cough. Even though I had minimally invasive robotic surgery, I found that I needed mine quite a bit those first several days and used him for “positive” pressure when I slept at night. I am now almost 10 weeks post op and haven’t needed him since about 2-3 weeks after surgery, but he will long be a momento of this event in my life!


Andrew Wrigley says on April 17th, 2011 at 6:03 am

In the UK, with public healthcare for free, you just get a towel, tightly wrapped and held together with sticky tape. It works too…


Kath says on June 26th, 2011 at 1:34 am

I’m due for surgery in less than a month. Have a thoraco-abdominal aortic aneurysm & must have the entire descending aorta reconstructed. A friend told me to get a cough pillow & I admit, I had to Google to find out what it was! Now I want one! But because of geographical challenges (I’m in SAfrica), I think I’ll have to make one for myself! Thanks for the idea :)


Mel says on September 27th, 2011 at 8:31 pm

Its been about 16 mos. post op for me (mitral valve repair/pfo repair) and I still use my pillow daily. I sleep with it, hug it, its been a big help when I’ve gotten colds and I cough very hard. I don’t know what I’d do without mine!


Diane Horsak says on September 29th, 2011 at 10:00 am

It’s been 3 yrs since my surgery. I still keep my pillow near my bed to remind me to take the best care possible & and cherish and be thankfull for every day I have. Also to keep up with this fantastic blog that has helped me so very, very much. Diane


Paula Mainie says on December 13th, 2011 at 8:55 am

I work in Cardiac Surgery in Ireland and used these pillows when nursing patients in the states in CTICU following sugery.
Do you have a company we can contact to order some please?


Paula Mainie says on December 13th, 2011 at 8:57 am

Can you provide contact details to order the cushions please? I work in cardiac surgery in Ireland.


Sandy Hurt says on January 30th, 2012 at 11:28 am

I was a heart valve repair patient in October. I love my heart shaped pillow. My hospital cardiac unit is in need of heart pillows for patients after surgery. I wanted to do a project and make pillows with our youth group. Do you have a pattern or instructions on how to make heart shaped pillows? I have searched on the inter net but I am not finding a simple pattern.
Thanks for any suggestions.

Sandy Hurt, Greensboro, NC


Linda Sime says on August 9th, 2012 at 2:52 pm

Just had my aortic valve replaced in June, 2012. I don’t know what I’d have done w/o my heart pillow. I still use it from time to time. Do use your spirometer as prescribed as well!


Laura Arwood says on August 9th, 2012 at 4:04 pm

The red pillow I got from Duke University Hospital was kidney shaped, had a graphic of a heart with valves and vessels labeled, and came with a pen so my visitors could sign it like a cast. Brought a smile.


Ron Rodriguez says on June 17th, 2013 at 11:58 am

My pillow, 11 years ago this very time, I used my heart shaped pillow to remind me to keep my arms crossed on my chest and stand without pushing up with my arms (and my sternum) from a sitting position. I say hi to mine every once in a while in my closet where it still has a place of honor.


Cary Blas says on January 4th, 2014 at 11:09 am

I’m a recent cardio valve repair patient. The heart shaped pillow the hospital gave me was accidently destroyed, and I’ve been trying to replace it to no avail. Can you tell me where I can purchase a replacement pillow, and the cost? Thank you Cary Blas


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