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
"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
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
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.