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Cohen: Heart bypass surgery common

CNN's Elizabeth Cohen
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Doctors say Clinton's age and health bode well for recovery.
On the Scene
Elizabeth Cohen
Bill Clinton

(CNN) -- Former President Clinton will undergo heart bypass surgery as early as Saturday, sources said. Clinton, 58, was undergoing tests for chest discomfort Friday at New York-Presbyterian Hospital.

CNN medical correspondent Elizabeth Cohen talked with CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer about the procedure and what Clinton could expect.

BLITZER: Sometimes the chest pains may be as simple as indigestion, but other times it can be very serious blockages resulting in surgery, and if there are those kinds of blockages, the heart surgeons like to do that as quickly as possible.

COHEN: That's right, and they can pretty easily determine whether it is just indigestion or if it's something more serious. Classically what happens when someone comes into the doctor ... and says I'm having chest pains, shortness of breath, as we mentioned earlier, just not feeling very well, they will give that person an EKG to see if there's some kind of an electrical pattern that shows that the person had a heart attack, and they'll do a blood test called an enzyme test, and what that shows is whether or not the dead heart muscle is shooting out enzymes basically that would show that there already has been a heart attack, and then they would move on from there.

Often what's done is something called an angiogram, where a catheter is spread up the body, from the groin, and so it shows whether or not there have been any blockages.

And then a decision has to be made. Do you put a stent in? And the stent is sort of a little mesh, almost looks like a part of a straw, to hold that open. Or do you go ahead and actually do bypass surgery? Bypass surgery is the much more invasive choice of the two and is done either when things are more serious, when the blockages are so tough that a stent may not be able to hold them open, or when the blockages are in places where it would be tough to put a stent in there to hold it open.

And in the bypass surgery, what they do, is they take part of a healthy artery from another part of the body, and they put it into the heart and they bypass ... the part where there's an actual blockage so the blood can start flowing again.

BLITZER: How long would -- assuming the surgery is successful, triple or quadruple, whatever it is nowadays -- how long is the recovery?

COHEN: Well, in the immediate sense, the recovery would be about 12 to 24 hours where that person is watched very carefully, but they can be out of that surgery within -- or out of the hospital within a matter of days, and depending upon the person, depending upon how many they had, depending upon what their health was like before then, they then take on varying levels of activity.

BLITZER: And New York-Presbyterian Hospital, I assume, is one of the best in the country when it comes to bypass surgery.

COHEN: Oh, absolutely. I was just on the phone with a doctor from the American Heart Association, and when I mentioned the name of the hospital, he said that is an excellent center for this kind of surgery, one of the best in the country.

BLITZER: It used to be 20, 30 years ago, relatively unusual, but now it's very, very common for men and women reaching the age 50, 60, 70 to have this kind of surgery.

COHEN: That's right. And in fact this doctor from the American Heart Association said to me, "Look, [former Secretary of State] Henry Kissinger had bypass surgery in the early '80s, in '81 or '82, and look at him now, he's going strong." So that, as you said, this used to be a huge deal, when you heard of someone going in for this. It seemed very serious, perhaps they were seriously, seriously ill and either would not live for very long or would live a life where they would really be curtailed in terms of activity. But I think it's safe to say that most of us know someone who has had this surgery who is perfectly fine and leads a very healthy life, sometimes for decades.

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