Caregiving After Surgery for Heart Failure

If you're taking care of someone close to you who just came home after surgery for heart failure, follow your doctor's instructions carefully. Take these steps to help your loved one get on the road to recovery during the first 6 to 8 weeks after his operation.

Care of the Surgery Wound

Protect the area around the incision:

  • Keep it clean and dry.
  • Use only soap and water to clean it.
  • Eat a healthy diet to help healing.

Call the doctor if you see signs of an infection around the incision, such as:

  • Increased drainage or oozing
  • Opening of the wound
  • Redness or warmth
  • Fever greater than 100.4 F

You should also call the doctor if your loved one says his sternum (the breastbone) feels like it moves, or if it pops or cracks with movement.

Pain Relief

It's normal for your loved one to feel some discomfort at the incision, as well as itching, tightness, or numbness. But the pain shouldn't be similar to what he felt before surgery.

He'll get a prescription for a pain medication before he leaves the hospital.


Your loved one's doctor will tell him when he can get behind the wheel again. This usually happens 6 to 8 weeks after surgery, or less if it was a type of operation called "minimally invasive." Until he gets the OK to drive, he can be a passenger as often as he likes.


The doctor will tell your loved one when he's allowed to get back to his regular routine. But for the first 6 to 8 weeks, follow these guidelines.

Slowly get more active. Household chores aren't a problem, but standing in one place longer than 15 minutes isn't recommended.

If it's heavy, don't mess with it. He shouldn't lift anything over 10 pounds. It's not a good idea to push or pull heavy objects either.

It's OK to climb stairs if the doctor agrees. But it's not a good idea to do it several times during the day, especially when he first arrives home. When planning activities, try to arrange them so your loved one goes downstairs in the morning and back upstairs when it's time for bed.

Walk every day. The doctor will give his guidelines about exercise when your loved one leaves the hospital.



Healthy eating is good for the healing process. The doctor may give special diet instructions. A poor appetite is common after surgery at first. If this happens to your loved one, encourage him to eat smaller, more frequent meals. Call the doctor if he still doesn't want much food after a few weeks.


It's common for someone who's had surgery for heart failure surgery to feel sad. These feelings should go away after the first few weeks. If they don't, call the doctor.

You can help keep your loved one's spirits up by encouraging him to:

  • Get dressed every day.
  • Walk daily.
  • Do hobbies and social activities he enjoys.
  • Share his feelings with others.
  • Spend time with other people.
  • Get enough sleep.
  • Join a support group or cardiac rehabilitation program.

Sleep After Surgery

Many people have trouble sleeping for a while after an operation for heart failure. Your loved one's normal sleep patterns should return within a few months. If not, or if lack of shut-eye brings changes in behavior, call the doctor.

Some things can help:

If your loved one has pain, suggest he take his pain medication about half an hour before bedtime. Offer to arrange the pillows so he can get into a comfortable position.

Although it's important to balance activity with rest during recovery, encourage your loved one not to take frequent naps during the day.

Tell him to avoid caffeine at night, such as chocolate, coffee, tea, and colas.

Have him get into a bedtime routine. If he follows the same rituals, his body learns to know it's time to relax and go to sleep.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by James Beckerman, MD, FACC on June 01, 2018



Heart Failure Society of America: "Managing Feelings About Heart Failure."

American Heart Association: "For Heart Failure Caregivers," "Caregiver Resources."



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