Every year hundreds of thousands of Americans undergo cardiac surgery. Though these operations are becoming safer, when something goes wrong, it can be catastrophic. Follow these strategies to make the best, most informed choices for you and your loved ones.
The actor Bill Paxton entered Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles last February for surgery to fix a faulty heart valve. But after 11 days, Paxton, then 61, died. Now, in a lawsuit against the surgeon and the hospital, his family alleges that his death stemmed not from the underlying heart problems but from complications linked to the procedures meant to correct them
The lawsuit also claims that the surgery wasn’t necessary and that the surgeon used a maverick technique, failed to disclose potential risk, and left the operating room too soon, leading to delays in treating those complications.
While only a small percentage of heart surgery patients die during the operation, all put their lives in the hands of the surgeon and the hospital.
Indeed, as Paxton’s lawyers write in the lawsuit, there’s a power imbalance between doctors, who are learned, skilled, and experienced in medical procedures and conditions, and patients and their families, who know little or nothing about the operation.
With our guide for heart surgery procedures, you can begin to right that imbalance: to learn when to ask the hard questions, what to anticipate, and what to guard against.
Knowledge is powerful
Open heart surgery is no small matter. Surgeons often saw through the breast bone to open the chest, connect the patient to a heart-lung machine, stop the heart, then repair it.
For experienced surgeons, the procedures can sometimes seem almost routine. But for patients and their families, the prospect of heart surgery can be scary.
FIGHT FEAR WITH FACTS
5 Common Heart Procedures
1. Coronary artery bypass grafting (CABG)
Plaque that grows in the heart’s arteries can prevent the organ from getting enough oxygen-rich blood. To fix the problem, a surgeon takes healthy sections of vein or artery from your leg or chest wall and uses them to bypass blockages in up to four arteries.
2. Percutaneous coronary intervention (PCI)
Sometimes doctors use this less invasive procedure to treat blockages by inserting and inflating a tiny balloon in an artery, often propping it open with a stent.
3. Aortic valve replacement (AVR)
The aortic valve is designed to open as the heart pumps, allowing blood out, and to close between beats, preventing blood from flowing back in. But some people are born with a faulty valve or develop one over time. Surgeons can repair a bad valve or replace it with a mechanical one or one made from human or animal tissue. When AVR is too risky, surgeons can perform transcatheter aortic valve replacement. (TAVR), a less invasive but less proven surgery that is performed through a catheter inserted in the leg or groin and threaded up to the heart.
4. Aneurysm repair
When an artery wall weakens and begins to bulge, surgeons can patch or bypass the weakened part before it bursts.
5. Arrhythmia treatment
A heart that beats too slowly, too quickly, or irregularly is sometimes controlled with one of two permanently implanted devices. A pacemaker uses electric impulses to regulate the heartbeat. An implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD) shocks the heart when it detects a dangerous rhythm, resyncing it. In rare cases, rhythm disorders must be corrected through an open heart surgery known as a maze procedure, which reroutes the electrical pathways in the heart.