Heart Bypass FAQ
WebMD News Archive
How is bypass surgery done?
Doctors take a substitute blood vessel from another part of the body. It's
safe to do this because the body has other ways of getting blood to areas.
The surgeon then attaches one end of the graft to the aorta and the other
end to the coronary artery below the blockage.
The traditional operation calls for a six- to eight-inch cut down the center
of the breastbone so the surgeon can get directly at the heart. During the
operation, the body is connected to a heart-lung bypass machine that keeps the
blood flowing. The heart is stopped while the doctor operates. Then the surgeon
uses special wires to close the chest.
Sometimes it's possible for the surgeon to use minimally invasive surgical
techniques. In this case, the incision is much smaller. And in some cases, the
heart does not even have to be stopped. However, these techniques can't be used
for all bypass surgeries.
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."