Introduction: Gastrointestinal (GI) complications following heart operation may be life-threatening. Systematic analysis of risk factors to allow early identification of patients at risk for GI complication may lead to the development of strategies to mitigate this complication as well as to optimize management after its occurrence.
Methods: Of 8709 consecutive patients undergoing heart operation during 7 years (1997-2003), 46 (0.53%) developed GI complications requiring surgical consultation. Preoperative, intraoperative, and postoperative predictors of complication and death were identified and compared with a control group.
Results: Significant (P < 0.05) preoperative predictors of complication were prior cerebrovascular accident (CVA), chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), type II heparin-induced thrombocytopenia, atrial fibrillation, prior myocardial infarction, renal insufficiency, hypertension, and need for intra-aortic balloon counter-pulsation. The most frequent serious GI complication was mesenteric ischemia, which developed in 31 (67%) patients. Twenty-two (71%) of these patients were explored, and 14 (64%) died within 2 days of heart operation. Of the 9 patients with mesenteric ischemia who were not explored, 7 (78%) died within 3 days of heart operation. Other complications included diverticulitis (5), pancreatitis (4), peptic ulcer disease (4), and cholecystitis (2). The mortality rate in this group of other diagnoses was lower (40%), and death occurred later (32 days) after heart operation (P = 0.03 compared with mesenteric ischemia). Predictors of death from GI complication included New York Heart Association (NYHA) class III and IV heart failure, smoking, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, history of syncope, aspartate aminotransferase (AST) >600 U/L, direct bilirubin >2.4 mg/dL, pH < 7.30, and the need for >2 pressors.
Conclusions: The most common catastrophic GI complication after cardiac surgery is mesenteric ischemia, which is frequently fatal. This complication may be a result of atheroembolization, heparin-induced thrombocytopenia, or hypoperfusion. Techniques to reduce the occurrence of and/or preemptively diagnosis postcardiotomy mesenteric ischemia are necessary to decrease its associated mortality.