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What should I expect when I leave the ICU after open heart surgery?

Moving out of the intensive care unit (ICU) after open heart surgery into what is often called a "step-down unit" is an important milestone. It means that your health is stable and improving. Here's what you can expect in this area of the hospital:
  • Continued monitoring and treatment. As you might expect, care outside the intensive care unit is less "intense" -- you'll notice a decrease in testing and monitoring. Yet you'll probably continue to receive oxygen therapy, monitoring of your heart and vital signs, medication, lab tests, and imaging tests.
  • Increased activity. Research has shown that too much bed rest can actually slow your recovery. That's why your healthcare providers will work with you to gradually increase your physical activity. The goals are to help you avoid muscle loss and stiffness, prevent complications like blood clots, and build up your strength to go home and resume daily activities.
  • Cardiac rehabilitation. Cardiac rehab staff will visit you daily to guide your increasing activity. They will help you progress from bedside stretching and gentle exercises to hallway walks, increasing your distance a little each time. You may even exercise on a recumbent stepper machine (a stair-step machine you can use while sitting). During these activities, staff will monitor your heart's response and give feedback to your doctors. Before you go home, cardiac rehab staff will give you guidelines on increasing your activity at home. They will also help arrange for outpatient cardiac rehab if recommended by your doctor.
  • Increased independence. To help you prepare to go home, your care team will encourage you to do more self-care activities (such as brushing your teeth, showering, and shaving).
  • Home instructions. Small-group and one-on-one teaching from your nurses, cardiac rehab staff, and other healthcare providers will help you understand what you need to do after you leave the hospital. This includes information about the immediate recovery period as well as how to manage your heart disease longer term.
  • If you had open heart surgery, you'll continue respiratory therapy and use of support stockings.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.