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Patients are healing faster – and with lots less pain – with minimally invasive heart bypass.

Elaine had a long family history of heart disease and had battled high blood pressure for years. So when she suddenly felt hot and her heart started racing on an October afternoon, she quickly realized what was happening.

“I knew immediately that I was having a heart attack,” says Elaine, 68.  “I’ve had several siblings pass away from heart disease, so it’s something I’m fully aware of.”

She quickly called 911. By the time emergency workers arrived, her heart had stopped beating. She was airlifted to Carolinas HealthCare System’s Carolinas Medical Center, where doctors sprang to action.

Though her heart stopped three separate times, doctors ultimately got her stabilized and cleared her heart blockage. But her ordeal wasn’t over. With the advanced stage of her heart disease, Elaine soon learned she might need something more: bypass surgery.

Bypassing the Pain

An involved mother, grandmother and great-grandmother, Elaine is the definition of active. When she’s not busy as a minister, a substitute teacher and a foster parent, she’s growing food on her own farm and advocating for criminal justice reform with The Innocence Project.

For an active woman like Elaine, the prospect of getting open heart surgery seemed daunting.

“With traditional bypass surgery, you have to take a saw to get through the breastbone. It takes months to heal and can be associated with a lot of pain,” says Joseph T. McGinn, MD, chief of thoracic and cardiovascular surgery at Carolinas HealthCare System’s Sanger Heart & Vascular Institute. “You can imagine how disabling that can be to patients and how much it can interrupt their normal life.”

But Dr. McGinn offered Elaine a newer, better option for the surgery she needed: minimally invasive bypass.

With this new approach, developed by Dr. McGinn, surgeons get to the heart by making three small cuts in the chest instead of cutting through the breastbone and breaking the ribs. That leaves patients with less pain, fewer complications, less scarring and a faster recovery.

“The general amount of damage to the patient’s body is almost zero,” says Dr. McGinn, who’s now performed the surgery on more than 1,000 patients and travels the world teaching the technique to other surgeons.

“They can resume their normal lifestyle much more quickly,” he says. “They can get back to enjoying their lives.”

Back in Action

For the energetic Elaine, minimally invasive bypass seemed like a perfect fit. A few weeks after her heart attack, she went in for the procedure. When she woke up, she says, she was pleasantly surprised.

“I was trying to get out of bed and walk around. I wasn’t hurting or anything,” she remembers. “I never needed any pain medication. I didn’t even realize I’d had surgery.”

And instead of the weeks-long hospital stay that comes with open heart bypass surgery, she was home in six days. Dr. McGinn says the faster recovery is what many patients love about the procedure.

“I still get messages of thanks from early patients who appreciated how fast they were able to get back to their normal lives,” he says.

While Elaine’s taking it easy for a while, she too has quickly returned to her familiar routine. That means getting back to volunteering, farming – and making plans for a month-long trip to Europe.

“I’ll be 69 years old soon,” she says. “And I feel strong.”

A healthy heart lets you stay focused on doing what you love.  Learn how Sanger Heart & Vascular Institute can help you keep your heart healthy.