The outcome of patients undergoing coronary artery bypass grafting with preoperative ejection fractions below 40% was evaluated to determine if a specific level of ventricular dysfunction resulted in unacceptably poor short-term or long-term survival rates. Left ventricular ejection fractions were segregated into groups of five percentage points each starting from 35% to 39% and progressing down to 10% to 14%. In evaluating the six ejection fraction groups between 10% and 39%, we found no significant differences among them with regard to previous myocardial infarctions, left ventricular end-diastolic pressure (LVEDP), age, preoperative New York Heart Association (NYHA) class, or number of vessels bypassed. Eighty-four percent were men and 16% women. From 1976 through 1982, 466 patients were distributed among these groups, all having ejection fractions below 40% (mean 30% +/- 3% SEM). There were significant differences (p = 0.001) in both the hospital and long-term survival (36 months) of patients with preoperative ejection fractions from 20% to 39% (425 patients) as compared to those with preoperative ejection fractions from 10% to 19% (41 patients). Hospital survival rate was 89% for patients with ejection fractions from 20% to 39% but only 63% for patients with ejection fractions below 20%. Similarly, at 3 years, patients with ejection fractions of 20% to 39% had an average survival rate of 60% as compared to an average survival rate of 15% for those with ejection fractions below 20%. Neither the preoperative LVEDP nor the intraoperative ischemic arrest time significantly predicted survival. In all survivors, NYHA class decreased from an average of 3.00 to 1.25 in surviving patients following bypass at a mean follow-up of 29 +/- 5 months. It is concluded that ejection fraction is an excellent predictor of short-term and long-term survival following coronary artery bypass grafting. Patients with ejection fractions of 10% to 19% have a significantly reduced short-term and long-term survival rate as compared to patients with ejection fractions of 20% or more.