This study tests the hypothesis that total vented bypass can attenuate the regional ischemic effect during a defined time interval before controlled blood cardioplegic reperfusion. Thirty-three dogs underwent 2 or 4 hours of occlusion of the left anterior descending coronary artery and then received a regional blood cardioplegic reperfusate on total vented bypass. Cardiopulmonary bypass and reperfusion were started after 2 hours of ischemia in eight dogs, and after 4 hours of ischemia in 25 others. Among the 25 dogs, seven had total vented bypass started after the first 2 hours of the 4 hours of regional ischemia. Segmental shortening (ultrasonic crystals), tissue water content (wet/dry weight), and histochemical damage (triphenyltetrazolium chloride stain) were assessed 2 hours after reperfusion. Dogs reperfused after 2 hours of ischemia recovered 73% +/- 8% of control systolic shortening and sustained only 11% triphenyltetrazolium chloride nonstaining. Dogs undergoing 4 hours of regional ischemia, but with total vented bypass 2 hours before reperfusion had improved recovery of systolic shortening (49% versus 31%, p less than 0.05), limited epicardial edema (79.6% versus 81.1% water content, p less than 0.05), and reduced histochemical damage (24% versus 39% triphenyltetrazolium chloride nonstaining, p less than 0.05). These findings imply that institution of total vented bypass during ischemia attenuates the infarct process, increases regional recovery of contractility, limits edema and restricts histochemical damage, and may be a useful adjunct to myocardial salvage when controlled reperfusion can be provided.