Resuscitation After Cardiac Surgery


  • Resuscitation in patients who have had cardiac surgery differs from traditional ACLS.
  • Patients often have unique causes of the arrest related to surgical complications.
  • The incidence of arrest is 0.7-8% following cardiac surgery.
  • Unlike most cardiac arrests – cardiac arrest following cardiac surgery often have better outcomes in terms of return of spontaneous circulation (ROSC) and neurological outcome.
  • Prompt recognition and management is critical by both the ICU and cardiac surgery teams.


  • VF arrest accounts for 25-50% of the cardiac arrests.
  • Cardiac tamponade and other major bleeding account for large portion of other cardiac arrests.

Key Differences

  • Emergency sternotomy is a critical component of cardiac arrest management.
  • Emergency sternotomy is a part of standard of care up until 10 days post cardiac surgery. Beyond 10 days it can still be considered but generally senior clinician should decide. At 10 days and beyond there is a risk of adhesions – though late tamponade is still possible especially if recent epicardial wire removal or anticoagulation use.


  • Unlike traditional ACLS – if VF/Pulseless VT is identified it is recommended that 3 shocks be attempted before CPR.
  • Traditionally asystole is managed with a general PEA algorithm. However, in post cardiac surgery patients given intrinsic conduction system can be damaged – pacing should first be attempted.
  • If paced PEA arrest -> turn off to exclude VF.

This algorithm suggest delaying CPR for initial management. The reason for this is recent sternotomy and the risk of life threatening bleeding with CPR.  Can delay for 1 minute while troubleshooting cardiac arrest before initiating CPR.

Society of Thoracic Surgeons Expert Consensus Statement

Clinical Pearls

  • Inability to get a systolic pressure of over 60mmHg -> suggest severe bleeding or tamponade.
  • Although an uncommon cause of cardiac arrest in cardiac patients -> always consider tension pneumothorax consider needle decompression, finger thoracostomy, check chest tubes.
  • Giving full dose cardiac epinephrine should only be done if instructed by senior clinician. Risk of severe hypertension and worsening bleeding if ROSC is achieved.
  • IABP – can trigger based on EKG or pressure. In cardiac arrest this mode should be switched to pressure mode in order to help facilitate CPR. If CPR is being held for emergency sternotomy can set the IABP to internal mode usually at a rate of a 100.
  • Internal cardiac message is preferred over external and has better evidence for better coronary perfusion and successful ROSC.
  • Abdominal compressions can be considered when performing emergency sternotomy given the inability to do CPR at that time.

Emergency Sternotomy

In non-VF/VT arrest the most common cause is cardiac tamponade. If ROSC does not occur with pacing and ruling out other immediate causes, emergency sternotomy should be performed within 5 minutes of cardiac arrest.

Should have cooling protocol as per standard AHA guidelines.

  • All cardiac ICU’s should be equipped with an emergency sternotomy kit.
  • Generally the kit only needs 5 things: a sternal retractor, scalpel, wire cutter, needle holder, and suction.
  • More complex kits can be developed but this risks confusing less skilled personal less familiar with procedure.
  • Generally at least two team members should be tasked with the sternotomy.
  • It is performed sterily with sterile gloves and gown and draping
  • The most experience with the operation should be performing the emergency sternotomy but waiting for more senior personal can be fatal and the procedure should be done within 5 minutes of cardiac arrest.
  • Usually the quickest way to open the chest is to have one person cutting the sternal wires and the other pulling them out.
  • Once the chest is open internal cardiac massage can be performed by experience clinicians.
Society of Thoracic Surgeons Expert Consensus Statement


The Society of Thoracic Surgeons Expert Consensus for the Resuscitation of Patients Who Arrest After Cardiac Surgery.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email