Thrombolytic therapy for acute myocardial infarction reduces early mortality, but full recovery of left ventricular function after reperfusion is delayed. Therefore, the relations among reperfusion, survival and the time course of left ventricular functional recovery were examined in 226 patients treated with intracoronary streptokinase; 77% (134 patients) had sustained reperfusion and 31 patients had no reperfusion or had reocclusion by day 3. Wall motion was measured from contrast ventriculograms performed in the acute period and 3 days later in the central and peripheral infarct regions and the noninfarct region by the centerline method in 165 patients. Patients with reperfusion had better survival (p less than 0.05, mean follow-up 4.5 years) and a higher ejection fraction at 3 days (52 +/- 12 versus 46 +/- 10%, p less than 0.02) attributable to a significantly different change in peripheral infarct region function between the acute and 3 day studies (0.1 +/- 1.0 versus -0.3 +/- 0.9 SD, p less than 0.05). These early functional changes were significant in patients with anterior myocardial infarction and showed similar trends in those with inferior myocardial infarction. On Cox regression analysis, function measured at 3 days was more predictive of survival than was function measured acutely (chi square for acute ejection fraction = 11.48 versus 24.59 at 3 days). Although, as previously reported, greater than 45% of total recovery of left ventricular function occurs later, the ejection fraction achieved by day 3 is already predictive of survival. Thus, the mechanism by which successful thrombolytic therapy enhances survival is improvement of regional and global left ventricular function early after acute myocardial infarction.