Although valve surgery is an intricate procedure, it is also common. In the majority of cases, valve replacement surgery is a straightforward procedure with a high rate of success and a low risk of complications. A cardiac surgeon, who specializes in heart surgery and has had years of training, will do the surgery. A team of nurses, an anesthesiologist, and possibly a surgical resident will assist the surgeon.
Prepare for surgery
Preparing for valve replacement surgery is similar to preparing for other major surgeries. You will be asked to not eat before surgery to prevent the risk of vomiting while you are under anesthesia. Your doctor may also have you stop taking certain medicines temporarily.
When you are in the operating room, a nurse will attach a number of monitoring devices, such as an EKG, to monitor the function of your heart and other vital signs during surgery. The nurse also will insert an intravenous (IV) line into your arm to deliver fluids and any necessary medicine. Finally, the nurse will place sterile drapes over your body, shave your chest if needed, and sterilize the area.
To help you breathe during surgery, you will be placed on a respirator, which involves placing a tube down your throat and into your lungs. This tube may be uncomfortable, but you will not be awake for most of the time that the tube is in your throat.
An anesthesiologist will place you under general anesthesia so that you do not see or feel anything during surgery. After you are unconscious, a transesophageal echocardiogram, which is a type of ultrasound device, will be inserted into your esophagus to display images of your heart during surgery.
Open the chest
The surgeon will use a marker to outline the incision on your chest before making it. To gain access to the heart, the surgeon will typically cut straight down the middle of your chest, from the top of your rib cage to just above your belly button. The incision goes through your sternum, or breastbone.
Establish heart-lung bypass
When your heart is visible, the surgeon will place you on a heart-lung machine, which will take over the function of your heart and lungs for the remainder of the operation by circulating oxygen-rich blood throughout your body. To attach you to the heart-lung machine, the surgeon will insert a tube into your right atrium, which receives oxygen-depleted blood from your body. Instead of going to your lungs to receive oxygen, the blood travels to the heart-lung machine to exchange carbon dioxide for oxygen. The blood then travels through a tube back to your aorta, which supplies blood to your entire body.
During bypass, your aorta is clamped near your valve to prevent blood from interfering with the surgery. To stop your heart temporarily, the surgeon will flush it with cold salt water or with a medicine. The surgeon will then bathe the heart in a solution that allows it to survive being deprived of blood for a short time.
This bypass is needed because it is difficult to work on your heart while it is beating. The bypass allows the surgeon to stop your heart temporarily without interfering with the circulation of oxygen-rich blood to your body. Bypass also reduces the risk of serious bleeding (hemorrhage).
Remove the old valve
After blood flow is diverted to the heart-lung machine, the surgeon will make a cut to expose the valve that is going to be replaced. For example, for an aortic valve replacement, the surgeon will make an incision in the aorta to expose the aortic valve. The surgeon will cut out the parts of the valve that will be replaced.
Attach the new valve
After parts of the old valve are removed, the surgeon will use a device to measure the size of the valve opening to select the proper size for the replacement valve. In general, the surgeon will choose the largest possible valve to ensure the best possible blood flow through the valve. The surgeon may then place the valve in the opening to make sure it fits correctly. After properly aligning the valve, the surgeon will sew it in place.
The surgeon will then check the placement to make sure there is no room for leaks. The stitches are then tied off and trimmed.
Remove heart-lung bypass
When the new valve is in place, the surgeon will allow some blood to flow through the valve to check for leaks. The surgeon will sew up the aorta, remove air bubbles from your heart, and restore blood flow. When blood flows through your heart, it will typically start beating again. Sometimes, though, the heart begins to beat erratically (fibrillate), and the surgeon will give it an electrical shock to induce normal beating patterns.
Close the chest
When your heart is beating normally, your surgeon will close your rib cage using heavy-gauge steel wire to sew the breastbone (sternum) together. The surgeon then will use stitches to close the incision in your chest. In most cases, you will have a visible scar on your chest.
Recover in the hospital
In the ICU
When you first wake up after your operation, you will be in an intensive care unit (ICU) so that your doctor can monitor your heart function to make sure that there are no complications. You will also find many wires and tubes inserted into different body parts. Most of these wires and tubes were inserted while you were in surgery. But they were kept in place to help your body perform vital functions and to provide you intravenously with medicine (primarily painkillers) and nutrients.
At first, you will feel drowsy and disoriented while the anesthesia wears off. You may also experience some pain, though you will be given painkillers. For the first few hours after surgery, you will be kept on a respirator or ventilating machine to help you breathe. The breathing tube usually will be removed from your lungs soon after you wake up.
In your hospital room
When your condition stabilizes and you have been moved to a regular hospital room, you will continue to rest and recuperate while your doctor monitors your recovery. Your care will also include physical and respiratory therapy, emphasizing breathing exercises and simple exercise such as walking. You will also receive counseling about a heart-healthy diet and exercises that you should maintain after you leave the hospital.
You will likely be able to eat solid foods within 24 hours after surgery and will be able to get up and walk around within 48 hours after surgery. Your chest will, of course, be sore for some time.