Heart attack

The coronary care unit

Most of the people interviewed spent the first few days after their heart attack in the Coronary Care Unit (CCU) of the hospital where they could receive a high level of very specialised care. 

They described being attached to heart monitors and having all sorts of tubes and wires attached to them so that tests could be taken or injections given (see 'Diagnosing a heart attack' and 'Initial treatments for a heart attack').

Being on a heart monitor meant that the nurses could see immediately if there were any disturbances in the heart rhythm. Another instrument took the blood pressure at regular intervals and gave a warning if it became abnormal.

Painkillers were given through a vein in the arm and the amount given increased or reduced until chest pain had eased. Some people said they found it intimidating being in this environment at first, but felt reassured that they were being so closely monitored and were surrounded by experts.

A few people found it difficult to sleep the first night on the CCU but this improved once they got used to the various noises.

A few, who had, had a severe heart attack, described the first 24 hours as being a bit hazy as they had drifted in and out of consciousness. But others who had had milder heart attacks felt well and said they began to wonder what all the fuss had been about.

At first, the nurses encouraged strict bed rest. One man, who felt well, was surprised when he walked across the ward and the nurse told him to get back in bed. But people also said that nurses encouraged them to become independent after the first days.

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Most people were in a four or six-bedded ward. One man who thought he would have preferred to be on his own, said it helped being with others in a similar situation. Another was surprised to be in a mixed ward*. Some younger people found it difficult that they were the youngest on the ward, and said it reinforced their feeling that they shouldn't be there.

Sometimes on the coronary care unit people die, or have a cardiac arrest and need to be resuscitated, and other patients are likely to hear this happen. To one man it brought home the seriousness of his situation. Another was upset and had an angina attack when a man on the ward, with whom he had become friendly, died suddenly.

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As people recovered, the various monitors and drips were gradually removed. They could then walk to the bathroom to have a wash or a shower, or were taken there by a nurse.

Many were shocked at how weak they had become in just a few days, and simple tasks like walking to the loo, or washing their face were exhausting. One man, who had a massive heart attack and was in coronary care for 21 days, had felt very weak, without the energy to walk, talk or hold a pen.

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Sometimes people have setbacks or another heart attack while on the coronary care unit and it then takes longer to recover. One man whose condition had not stabilised after a week was transferred to another hospital for an angiogram, which showed he needed coronary artery bypass surgery.

People felt reassured by the continuity of care, professionalism and attentiveness of the coronary care teams that looked after them.

Once the doctor was confident that the situation was stable, people were moved out of intensive care and onto a general ward (see 'The general ward and discharge home after a heart attack').

* Since these interviews the NHS has continue to work towards ensuring that there is same-sex accommodation for patients at every stage of their care.

Last reviewed June 2017.

Last updated June 2017.

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