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Mercy Cardiothoracic Surgical Associates

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the difference between a thoracic and a cardiothoracic surgeon?

A thoracic surgeon is the broad term that refers to doctors who perform operations on the heart, lungs, esophagus, and other organs in the chest cavity. The two terms can be used interchangeably. All cardiothoracic and thoracic surgeons have:
  • graduated from medical school
  • completed a five-year general surgery residency
  • completed an additional two or three year cardiothoracic surgery residency program
Some cardiothoracic surgeons have also obtained additional training in sub-specialized areas.

What types of heart disease usually require surgery?

Heart surgery is recommended for a wide variety of patients who have certain heart diseases or conditions that do not, or cannot, respond to other forms of treatment. Learn more in our Conditions and Procedures section.

Who decides whether or not I will need surgery? How do they make that decision?

Typically, several doctors and specialists will work together to determine if surgery is the best type of treatment to recommend for your disease or condition. Your primary care doctor, cardiologist (someone who specializes in treating the heart), and a cardiothoracic surgeon (someone who operates on the heart and lungs) will decide if you would benefit from heart surgery. They will make their decision based on several factors including your health history; your age and general health; and the results of several possible diagnostic tests including:
  • blood tests
  • chest x-ray
  • electrocardiogram (EKG)
  • stress test
  • echocardiography
  • coronary angiography
  • aortogram
  • cardiac computed tomography (CT) scan
  • cardiac magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)

Is the surgeon in the same room during a robotic-assisted surgical procedure?

Yes. Your surgeon will remain in the room with you during anytime of minimally invasive, robotic-assisted or video-assisted surgical procedures. Your surgeon simply uses the technology to enhance his or her expertise. For example using video-assisted technology the surgeon will insert a small camera into your chest cavity and the 3-D image will be displayed on a high-definition flat screen monitor so that he/she can more closely examine the area that needs to be operated on and operate more precisely using the technology. Robots do not do surgery, surgeons do and use robots for that purpose.  

Why would a surgeon choose to do video or robotic-assisted surgery? What are the benefits?

Robotic or video-assisted surgery enables cardiothoracic surgeons to make much smaller incisions (openings in the body) and use specialized scopes and instruments to perform delicate procedures. There are numerous benefits to video and robotic-assisted surgery including:
  • lower risk of major and minor complications, including infection
  • less blood loss
  • less scarring
  • reduced pain
  • shorter hospital stay
  • quicker recovery
There are several procedures that can be performed using a surgical robot and other minimally-invasive surgical techniques such as:
  • coronary artery bypass to treat blocked heart arteries
  • heart valve repair and/or replacement for patients with mitral valve disease
  • repair of small holes in the heart such as atrial septal defects
  • procedures to correct the arrhythmia (abnormal heart rhythm) associated with atrial fibrillation

Will I need blood during surgery?

Requirements for blood during or after surgery will depend on factors such as age, the presence or absence of preoperative anemia or clotting disorders, and the magnitude of the blood loss during and after surgery. See our blood transfusion pages for more information.

How long does surgery usually take?

The length of your surgery will vary depending on the type of procedure and if the surgeon discovers that something else needs to be done surgically (or done using another method than initially thought) after entering your chest cavity. The surgical staff will keep your loved ones waiting in the Family Waiting Area informed about how the procedure is going.

Will I have to stay in the ICU after surgery? Can anyone visit me while I’m in ICU?

Cardiothoracic surgical patients stay in the Cardiac Intensive Care Unit (CICU), located on the first floor of the Mercy Heart & Vascular Center, immediately following the procedure for at least a 24 hour period. During this time you will be closely monitored by the nursing staff and your surgeon and cardiologist will keep an eye on your condition as well. Only immediate family members can visit you while you are in the CICU and then only one member at a time.

Once you are medically stable your status is changed to cardiac stepdown for several days to more fully recover before you are discharged to go home.

How long will I have to stay in the hospital?

Your inpatient length of stay will depend on how quickly your body is able to recover following surgery. Our Open Heart Surgery Handbook lists the post-operative recovery plan for the first five days following your procedure. Learn what to expect while you are recovering in the hospital after you have been designated as a stepdown patient on Day 1, Day 2, Day 3, Day 4, and Day 5.

How long will it take for me to recover from surgery?

Every patient’s recovery time will vary depending on the type of surgery (for example, conventional versus minimally-invasive), age, and health condition. Most cardiothoracic patients can safely assume it will take between a minimum of 4-6 weeks to recover and begin resuming a somewhat normal, pre-operative lifestyle.

What makes a surgical procedure "minimally invasive?"

Minimally invasive procedures involve a surgeon making one or more small incisions to enter the patient’s chest cavity. The surgeon then insertss specialized surgical equipment through the tiny incisions to perform the prescribed procedure.

Is it safe for me to exercise after surgery?

Cardiothoracic surgery of any type is major surgery and your body will need time to rest and recover. Initially you should only plan on low-level activities that do not include major physical exertion for at least 6 weeks following discharge. Your doctor will give you a release to resume your pre-surgery activities when you are deemed physically able, however you should approach exercise as a progressive endeavor and work to regain strength and endurance over time.

Will I need to change my eating habits after surgery?

Your post-discharge instructions will include notes on any recommended lifestyle changes including potential dietary changes. In addition, your cardiologist, pulmonologist, other specialists, and primary care doctor may recommend dietary changes based on your underlying medical condition that necessitated surgery. For example, if coronary artery disease created a condition that required coronary artery bypass surgery your doctor may recommend that you consume a diet with reduced fat, higher lean protein intake, and fiber. Consult your primary care doctor and specialists before making any dramatic dietary changes or before beginning a weight loss program.

Do I need to begin taking aspirin if I have heart disease?

Consult your cardiologist to learn what medications he or she recommends if you have been diagnosed with heart disease. While a daily aspirin may lower your risk of heart attack or stroke, it isn’t right for everyone. There are potentially serious side effects of daily aspirin use; your doctor can determine if it might be effective for you based on your current health, health history, and current risk factors.

How long after surgery before I can drive?

You should plan on not driving for at least 4-6 weeks following surgery.  Learn more about post-discharge do’s and don’ts.

After I leave the hospital, what type of care will I need?

Perhaps the best rule of thumb during recovery is to exercise moderation in most everything you do. Use common sense and "listen" to your body. See our home care pages for more information.

Will I have to do anything to take care of an incision once I get home?

Your Mercy nursing staff and doctors will give you step-by-step post-discharge instructions including how to care for your healing incisions and recognize any potential signs of infection or other complications.

Avoid taking a tub bath, swimming in a pool, or using a hot tub for 4 weeks while your incision is healing. Wash (don’t rub) your incision gently every day with warm water and mild (non-perfumed) soap and pat dry with a soft towel. Do not apply any lotion, powder or ointments until any scabs have fallen off. A small amount of clear or slightly-bloody discharge is normal.

Contact your surgeon’s office if you notice any signs of potential infection including:
  • increased drainage or swelling around the incision site
  • redness around the incision or red streaks radiating away from the site
  • fever
  • opening of the incision
  • extreme chest pain
Tingling, itching, and numbness are normal sensations associated with surgical wounds and will slowly lessen over time. During the first several months following surgery you should take precaution to protect the site by wearing sun block and comfortable, “breathable” clothing.

Call 9-1-1 immediately if you are experiencing any life-threatening conditions.

If I need to have radiation or chemotherapy how long will I have to wait after surgery?

If a cancer has been removed and you need additional chemo or radiation therapy, a 4 to 6 week period is necessary for tissues to heal enough.

Is there anything I need to look out for after I get home?

Check daily for signs of potential incision infection. If you spike a fever, show signs of potential infection, or experience any significant chest pain or have difficulty breathing you should contact your doctor. If your symptoms are life-threatening, call 9-1-1 immediately.

Is heart or lung surgery covered under Medicare?

Medicare is a government-run health insurance program that provides financial benefits for people age 65 and older and for younger people with certain disabilities. The Mercy Cardiothoracic Surgical Associates’ administrative staff can help determine what your private insurance and/or Medicare will cover and what deductible you may need to pay out of pocket. The staff can also help provide you with information on sources of financial assistance. Learn more about which major health insurance plans Mercy participates in, , and “What Original Medicare Covers”.
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