Routine care for the post-operative cardiac surgical patient

This is a condensed revision of Ray Raper's chapter on post-op management of cardiothoracic surgical patients in the ICU. It has been expanded upon by details from the 2004 update to the 1999 AHA guidelines relating to the management of patients recovering from coronary artery bypass graft surgery. The routine care of such patients is never asked about in the written papers, mainly because the college is usually asking about the management of complications, which should not form a part of routine post-operative care.

The perioperative mortality for these people is on average about 3%.

The post-operative course, and the anticipated problems, can be summarised as follows:

  • Immediate management following return from theatre
  • Management in the first 4 hours post op
  • Assessment of readiness for extubation
  • Management of the post-operative respiratory failur

Upon return from theatre:


  • the patient will be intubated

Ventilator setup

  • Mechanical ventilation (mandatory mode) should be commenced
  • No unique recommendation - standard ventilation

Circulatory support and monitoring

  • A healthy elective patient is likely to be cold, vasoconstricted, and on a GTN infusion to decrease coronary vascular resistance
  • PA catheter: get a thermodilution cardiac output measurement

Chest Xray:

  • To assess the position of ETT, drains, PA catheter or central line
  • To assess the re-expansion of the lungs


  • To assess for coronary ischaemia


  • To assess for adequacy of reversal of heparinisation

In the first 4 hours:

Ventilator settings

  • Wean off mandatory mode and transition to a patient-triggered pressure support mode
  • Wean FiO2 as tolerated



  • One typically allows the patient to re-warm spontaneously. Rarely is any extraordinary heating required.

Circulatory support

  • Anticipate hypotension as passive rewarming takes place; GTN can be weaned off.
  • Watch for cardiac tamponade
  • Carefully titrate vasopressors to increase MAP
  • Carefully titrate vasodilators to prevent excessive afterload
  • aim for a MAP of 90-100 (according to some authors) - lower if the aorta has been opened

Fluid management

  • Isotonic crystalloids or 4% albumin - seems to matter very little
  • Anticipate polyuria in the first 6 hours

Electrolyte replacement

  • Anticipate early hypokalaemia and hypomagnesaemia
  • Anticipate late hyperkalaemia (especially from patients on chronic ACE-inhibitors)
  • Aim for a potassium of 4.5-5.0, magnesium 1.0-1.5


In this fashion, 4 hours pass.


Are they ready for extubation?

There are a few conditions they must meet.

  • Hemodynamic stability (ok, some noradrenaline is permissible)
  • Warmth (the return to normothermia)
  • Alertness (they need to be waking up)
  • Some degree of spontaneous respiratory effort
  • Normoxia

The majority of uncomplicated CABG patients tend to meet these criteria after 4 hours or so.

And those that don't? Why aren't they ready for extubation yet?

The temperature of the patient, and their level of alertness, is something well within your control. Warm them, wake them up, take away the sedating infusions - all of these things will help.

However, the hemodynamic stability and the ventilation are slightly more tricky.


Fremes, S. E., et al. "Effects of postoperative hypertension and its treatment." The Journal of thoracic and cardiovascular surgery 86.1 (1983): 47.

André, Arthur C. St, and Anthony DelRossi. "Hemodynamic management of patients in the first 24 hours after cardiac surgery." Critical care medicine 33.9 (2005): 2082-2093.

Eagle, Kim A., et al. "ACC/AHA 2004 guideline update for coronary artery bypass graft surgery: a report of the American College of Cardiology/American Heart Association Task Force on Practice Guidelines (Committee to Update the 1999 Guidelines for Coronary Artery Bypass Graft Surgery).Circulation 110.14 (2004): e340.

Simonet, E., V. Velebit, and M. Schmuziger. "Open chest and delayed sternal closure after cardiac surgery." Eur J Cardio-thorac Surg 10 (1996): 305-311.