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A Heart Attack and the ICU - Time to Panic?

My name is Tracy, and I live in the Tampa Bay Area. I have been a Registered Nurse in the Cardiac ICU for the past 17 years.

Heart Attack and the ICU

A heart attack is a very scary thing, and landing yourself in the ICU is even scarier. What people don't realize, however, is that if there is the slightest indication of any injury to the heart, you have automatically won a stay in the ICU. Don't panic, being admitted to the ICU doesn't necessarily mean you are on death's door. It only means you need an extra "eye" on you. ICU nurses only have 2 patients at a time, so you get that extra "eye" on your loved one.

A heart attack or heart injury can be caused by many things. Your heart could have thrown a "clot" or had a "spasm," or many other events could have occurred that really aren't worth fretting over. The most important thing now is recovery.

What to Expect in the ICU

Most of the time you have won a trip to the Cardiac Catheterization Lab, called Cath Lab for short. This is where they are going to have a look at what your coronary arteries are doing in there. Your coronary arteries are the blood supply that feeds the heart, which is very important. No blood supply—no working heart.

The doctors will throw around a lot of terminology at you that leaves you wishing you had a Google page in front of you during the conversation. Sometimes your nurse isn't much help, either, in the terminology department. Don't worry. They are usually talking about the "area" of your heart that got damaged.

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Any area of damage to the heart is not good, but some are worse than others. You can have damage to the right side of the heart or left. If the damage is extensive, you will have problems down the road. If you got yourself into the ER pretty quickly, you have a better chance of having a better recovery. Remember: time is muscle. Wait a long time: you have damaged some muscle. A broken heart is like a strained calf muscle: keep using that muscle, it is only going to get worse. Get it fixed and rest it: you have a better chance of recovery.

If you went to the Cath Lab, chances are you came out with a stent. This is a tiny metal-like device that keeps the walls of your coronary artery open, so that blood can pass through. You will probably be sent home on some kind of blood-thinner to keep your blood thinned out. When your blood is thinned out, then your ability to "clot" is decreased. This is good because thinned out blood won't create clots around your new device. This is bad because you will bruise easily.


Treat your heart as you would a sprained ankle. Get some rest and take it easy. Be good to your heart, as you have only one of them. Don't go crazy on fluid intake, as this makes the heart work harder with extra fluid. Don't go jogging the following week, as this makes the heart work harder. Don't do things that will make your heart rate beat faster, as this makes the heart work harder. Are we noticing a trend here? The heart does not want to do any extra work right now! It is trying to recover.

Keep your follow-up appointments. Weigh yourself daily. This is important because if you gain more than 5 pounds over a couple of days, you could be showing signs of heart failure. This is where your heart can't handle the extra fluid and starts to back up. Weighing yourself everyday is very important. If this happens, call your doctor immediately and tell them you have gained weight quite rapidly recently. They may want give you a diuretic that will make you pee out all that extra fluid.

This content is for informational purposes only and does not substitute for formal and individualized diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed medical professional. Do not stop or alter your current course of treatment. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

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