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

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

Adam Pick is a patient, author of The Patient's Guide To Heart Valve Surgery and the founder of HeartValveSurgery.com.

To learn how Adam has helped millions of people with heart valve disease, watch Adam's video, subscribe to his free newsletter, or visit his Facebook, or Twitter pages.

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