Of 2171 patients who underwent open heart surgery between 1981 and 1986, 41 (1.8%) developed postoperative mediastinitis and were treated by closed irrigation drainage or open chest therapy. Six patients, (mean age 59 years) developed rupture of the right ventricular free wall. The primary procedures were: resection of akinetic fibrous plaque (2), mitral valve replacement (1), coronary bypass grafting (1), removal of a left atrial myxoma (1) and repair of post-infarction rupture of the left ventricle (1). In 2 patients, rupture occurred in the operating theatre during revision of the irrigation drainage. Both patients died after repair. In 4 patients, rupture occurred during coughing. One died before surgery. In the 3 other cases, the defects were repaired either by direct suture (2 patients) or with a pericardial patch (1 patient) with the aid of normothermic extracorporeal circulation. Three days later, a muscular flap (pectoral or dorso-lumbar) was mobilized to protect the mediastinal viscera. All 3 patients are alive and well. When bleeding occurs during treatment of mediastinitis, an immediate exploration with extracorporeal circulation to close the defect should be considered. © Springer-Verlag 1988.