In a series of 253 high-risk surgical patients, we measured the oxygen consumption (VO2) at frequent intervals before, during, and immediately after surgical operations and calculated the rate of VO2 deficit from the measured VO2 minus the VO2 need estimated from the patient's own resting preoperative control values corrected for both temperature and anesthesia. The calculated oxygen deficit was related to multiple organ failure, complications, and outcome. The 64 patients who died all had organ failure; their cumulative VO2 deficit averaged 33.2 +/- 4.0 L/m2 (+/- SEM) at its maximum, which occurred 17.8 +/- 2.2 h after surgery. In the 31 survivors with organ failure, the cumulative VO2 deficit averaged 21.6 +/- 3.7 L/m2 at its maximum, which occurred 10.1 +/- 2.7 h after surgery (p less than 0.05). In the 158 survivors without organ failure or major complications, the maximum cumulative VO2 deficit averaged 9.2 +/- 1.3 L/m2 at 4.1 +/- 0.6 h after surgery (p less than 0.05). In a prospective randomized clinical trial, a protocol group maintained at supranormal hemodynamic and oxygen transport values had significantly reduced oxygen debt (7.6 +/- 3.4 L/m2 vs 17.3 +/- 6.8 L/m2; p less than 0.05), fewer organ failures, and lower mortality (4 percent vs 33 percent; p less than 0.05) compared with a control group maintained at normal hemodynamic values. The data demonstrate a strong relationship between the magnitude and duration of the VO2 deficit in the intraoperative and early postoperative period and the subsequent appearance of organ failure and death. The latter may be reduced when oxygen debts were prevented or minimized by augmenting naturally occurring compensations that increased oxygen delivery.