Video: Bypass surgery

updated 9/7/2004 6:42:16 PM ET 2004-09-07T22:42:16

The chest pains that brought Former President Bill Clinton to New York Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia Friday were not a sign of a heart attack, but were serious enough to require a quadruple coronary bypass to unclog the arteries in his heart.

Clinton, an advocate of the popular "South Beach Diet," has lost a considerable amount of weight in recent years. Despite his reputation as an avid jogger, Clinton's clogged arteries are likely the result of years of cholesterol build-up in his blood.

High levels of bad cholesterol can slow the blood flow to the heart, eventually leading to a heart attack. However, Clinton did not suffer a heart attack, according to reports.

“He went to our local hospital yesterday complaining of chest pains and shortness of breath," Sen. Hillary Clinton told reporters Friday. After being sent home by doctors, he was advised to return Friday morning for additional tests, she explained.

"They did advise him to have bypass surgery and do it as soon as he could," she said. “He’s in excellent hands and he’s at one of the great hospitals of the world.”

Clinton is scheduled to undergo heart bypass surgery on Tuesday.

A bypass is necessary for the former president because of the severity of the artery blockage, cardiologist Dr. Eric Topol of the Cleveland Clinic told MSNBC.

“What's been done so far, evidently, is there has been determination of blockages in the arteries that are right on the heart surface that supply the heart muscle, and multiple blockages in multiple arteries. Otherwise this could be handled with stenting or balloon angioplasty," he said Friday. "So, basically [the bypass surgery will take] arteries and/or veins to place around those blockages to restore excellent blood supply to all of the heart muscle."

Cardiovascular disease is the No. 1 killer of men and women in the United States, accounting for nearly 40 percent of all deaths each year, according to the American Heart Association. For men, the average age at the first major sign of a heart problem is 35 to 44. Clinton recently turned 58.

A common procedure
Heart bypass is a common procedure to clear clogged arteries. More than 300,000 bypass surgeries are performed in the United States each year, according to the AHA.

During a coronary bypass, surgeons reroute the blood flow around the clogged arteries using sections of a vein or artery taken from elsewhere in the body, often the leg. Blood can then flow through the detour to the heart, reducing the risk of a heart attack, experts say.

The surgery requires general anesthesia and usually takes between three and six hours. After the bypass operation, most patients spend a day or two in intensive care and then at least four or five days in the hospital. On average, patients begin to feel better after four to six weeks, but full recovery can take several months.

After a bypass some people experience a decline in memory and other cognitive functions, but most regain their mental sharpness within six to 12 months, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Risk of death is about 2 percent from heart bypass, doctors say, but because Clinton has no other serious health problems, chances for a full recovery are “excellent,” said Topol.

"He's a healthy 58-year-old gentleman who has a good, strong heart muscle and no other serious health problems, so we would expect that he would do beautifully with the surgery," Topol told MSNBC.

But even if the bypass operation is successful, Clinton will need to keep his weight down and maintain his exercise routine. Bypass surgery does not cure coronary disease. Over time, other arteries could become clogged, the Mayo Clinic reports, and he could need surgery again.

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