BACKGROUND Atheroembolism is a recognized complication of cardiac surgery, but its incidence and various outcomes have not been completely described. A retrospective study was undertaken to better characterize the syndrome. METHODS Records of 49,377 autopsies and surgical specimens from the Johns Hopkins Hospital between 1973 and 1995 were reviewed. Three hundred twenty-seven patients (0.7%) had an identifiable atheroembolism on histologic examination. Of these patients, 29 (0.2%) had undergone a cardiac surgical procedure within 30 days of autopsy or surgical resection. Patient charts and pathology specimens were reviewed for operative findings, postoperative outcomes, and histology. RESULTS Six of the 29 patients (21%) had atheroembolism to the heart, 7 patients (24%) had embolism to the central nervous system, 19 patients (66%) had embolism to the gastrointestinal tract, 14 patients (48%) had embolism to one or both kidneys, and 5 patients (17%) had embolism to a lower extremity. Sixteen patients (55%) had atheroembolism in two or more areas. In 6 patients (21%), death was directly attributable to atheroembolism, including intraoperative cardiac failure from coronary embolism (n = 3), massive stroke (n = 2), and extensive gastrointestinal embolization (n = 1). CONCLUSIONS Atheroembolism in cardiac surgery has a broad spectrum of clinical presentations, including devastating injuries and death. Although the true incidence is probably underestimated in this retrospective study, the high attendant mortality and morbidity of atheroembolism have been documented. Improvements in outcome are likely to be associated with preoperative identification of patients at high risk, modifications of perfusion technique, and interventions to minimize secondary thrombosis and progressive organ ischemia.