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Heart Bypass FAQ

How risky is bypass surgery?

In a relatively young patient -- such as former President Clinton -- who has no underlying diseases such as diabetes, the risk of bypass surgery is small.

"In skilled hands, the surgery can be carried out with overall risk of 1% to 2% of anything untoward happening," Shah says. "This varies according to age, how badly damaged the heart is, whether the aorta itself has plaque buildup -- a number of factors. But I think driving a car every day is more dangerous."

How long does it take to recover?

Once the bypass surgery is completed, doctors start the heart again with electric shocks and turn off the heart-lung machine.

The patient will have wires to monitor the heart pace and a tube to drain fluids leading from the chest. Sometimes a temporary pacemaker is attached to the wires and to the chest.

After surgery, the patient goes to an intensive care unit for a day or two of close monitoring. Then the patient is transferred to the nursing unit for three to five days.

Recovery from bypass surgery can be surprisingly rapid.

"With uncomplicated surgery in a person of President Clinton's age -- if his heart muscle is not damaged -- you can be out of the hospital in five days," Shah says. "If they say he has an excellent chance of full recovery, he would be an excellent candidate for fast recovery. I would say he has only a 1% to 1.5% risk of anything bad happening."

Once a person who has had bypass surgery leaves the hospital, home recovery means progressively increasing activity over the next two to four weeks.

"Most patients are fully functional in six to eight weeks, although some people may take longer," Shah says. "But four to six weeks of progressive recuperation at home is needed. The patient is not bed-bound but not leaving home. And there can be fatigue, heart arrhythmias, fluid buildup, depression. But most people recover fairly quickly."

How unusual is Clinton's condition?

Unfortunately, many American men have some degree of heart disease by the age of 50.

"The average male in the U.S., consuming a regular American diet, by age 50 has a good chance of having this disease," Shah says. "It is the norm rather than the exception. And it is largely a lifestyle issue, meaning it is avoidable."
Heart disease is also the No. 1 killer in women. Like in men, women's arteries tend to begin to clog early in life especially in those eating the typical American high-saturated fat diet. Heart disease is most likely to rear its ugly head after a woman reaches menopause.

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