Caregiving After Heart Surgery: 5 Tips for a Speedy, Healthy Recovery

Going in for surgery is not easy, but it can be equally challenging on the caregiver as on the patient. Post-op care requires patience, compassion and a bit of basic medical knowledge to smooth your loved one’s journey after heart surgery.

Caregiving After Heart SurgeryDeb Ziegler, Mitral & Tricuspid Valve Patient, with Josie & Jim

1. Figure Out the Patient’s Preferences BEFORE Surgery

As with many aspects of a relationship, communication about surgery expectations is key. Don’t wait until your loved one is recuperating on a couch to find out what he or she needs. Instead, have a detailed discussion in the days or weeks leading to the surgery. Does the patient want visitors after arriving home? What types of foods make him feel best when she’s sick? Do books, movies or video games relax him? Discuss these aspects of post-surgical care before the operation to ensure you’re both on the same page.

2. Get Specific Instructions from the Surgical Team

Medical instructions for post-heart surgery care may vary by individual circumstances. High risk patients, individuals with diabetes and other special populations may have different recommendations for caregivers. Talk to the nurses at the hospital for specific post-op caregiving instructions (most facilities have a detailed checklist for family members). Remember to ask about wound care, mobility, diet and medications if the medical team doesn’t make clear recommendations.

3. Wound Care

It’s essential to keep the surgical incision clean and dry to prevent infection. Wash the incision gently with warm water and mild soap before patting dry (no rubbing!) with a soft cloth, the University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine recommends. Check the incision periodically for signs of infection. If you notice increased drainage, redness, warmth along the incision, fever or opening of the incision, call your surgeon for advice. These signs of infection may warrant further medical intervention.

4. Be Aware of Dietary Limitations

Typically, surgical patients cannot eat before receiving general anesthesia. After heart surgery, many patients have a diminished appetite for several days or weeks. Discuss your loved one’s dietary needs with her medical team. In general, clear liquids can be some of the best foods to eat in the days following surgery, according to St. Joseph’s Women’s Hospital. Include simple broths, apple juice, Jell-O, tea or crackers in your loved one’s diet. As your patient recovers, adding solid food in small portions is fine. Avoid greasy, spicy and heavy foods in the first day or two following surgery. Because many heart surgery patients have a diminished appetite, preparing several smaller meals throughout the day may be easier than sticking to your typical meal schedule.

5. Know the Limits of Your Own Abilities

Even the most caring and compassionate individuals struggle to assume a caregiver role. It is important to consider your own needs when planning for a loved one’s surgery. In many cases, professional caregivers are able to provide a higher level of patient care, reducing the toll on your health and emotional well-being. For example, Emeritus offers assisted living communities that provide health care, meals, and recreational opportunities for patients requiring post-surgery care. Finding an assisted living community may be a good choice for caregivers with their own physical difficulties or health problems.

Do you have any tips to help the family and friends of heart surgery patients? If so, click here to leave a comment.

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

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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