Staying Sane During Surgery Recovery

I won’t lie, surgery recovery is hard. You suddenly can’t do the things you used to be able to do, your body feels like it belongs to someone else, you have medication changes to keep track of, and you have lots of time to fill. You will find yourself feeling defeated, annoyed, lonely, and a million other things as you wait to get back to normal (or what now counts as your normal). How do you maintain sanity during this time? Here’s what I’ve learned the last few weeks.

Disclaimers: I had a right colectomy which was laparoscopic and had no complications, so many of these tips are focused  on recovery from that kind of surgery. More importantly, I’m not a medical professional (not even close), just a fellow patient. Your care team can guide you in whether something on this list is appropriate for your recovery.

Before Your Surgery

  • Ask your surgeon and/or GI doc any questions you have: Some are obvious – how long will I be in the hospital? How long until I can go back to work? What are potential complications? You probably have a pre-op appointment shortly before your surgery and this is the time to ask anything that pops into your head. They’ve probably been asked all sorts of questions before, especially if the patient hadn’t had surgery before. Be sure to ask what you do if, on the day of your surgery, you have to cancel for illness or weather.
  • Figure out when you’ll get back to work: You may able to telecommute, work part-time in the office, work fewer hours at first, or make some other special arrangement. Reach our to your boss or HR to find out your company’s policies. Because of the nature of my job, I can’t work from home so this meant I did zero work until my doctor cleared me to go back in person. I also chose not to go back until I could work full time, but that was dictated by it being the holiday season rather than corporate policy or how I was feeling.
  • Plan for who will help you at home: This isn’t just to ensure you have help taking care of yourself, but also help doing the things you normally do. Household chores. Paying bills. Taking care of children and/or pets. Figure out who will do what so you need not worry about it once you’re home. (And, for really critical things, try to find a backup.)
  • Ask for in-person visits or remote ones (audio or video): Friends and family may assume that you just want to be left alone or that you don’t want to be seen in your condition. If you do want to be visited in the hospital, say so. If you want to chat with someone on the phone, call them (or text first, if you’re me). I was lucky that Matt was able to spend one entire day with me plus some shorter visits here and there, but I also reached out to my parents and a good friend/neighbor during the times he had to be home to take care of Lizzie or work or, you know, get an actual decent night of sleep in his own bed.
  • Pack a bag with what you’ll need while there: I did this in a backpack to make it easier for Matt to transport it around until I had a room. I threw in things I needed to entertain myself, a robe, several changes of comfy and stretchy clothes, phone charger, headphones, toothpaste and toothbrush, lotion, and chap stick. I also made sure I had my insurance card and government-issued ID in an easily accessible pocket to make registration easier.
  • Follow all instructions you’re given by your doctor and/or hospital: Whatever the staff tells you to do – or not do – in the days before your surgery, do it. I had to shower using a special soap and go without makeup, lotion, and lip balm and had to only take a sub-set of my usual medication.
  • Find something to amuse yourself in the hospital that’s low-key: You’ll want something that doesn’t require a ton of thought or energy but can keep you amused. Television, audiobooks, crossword puzzles (easy ones), and coloring are great ideas. For me, this was mostly watching hours of HGTV on the hospital television. We don’t get the channel at home, so this was a treat for me. I also did a bit of knitting, though it often wore me out very quickly. I brought a journal and books with me, both of which remained in my backpack for the length of my stay.
  • Bring along a robe and your own undies: You can certainly get another robe to cover your backside and get some of those super-sexy disposable undies, but you’ll feel that much more human if you have your own. You may or may not be able to put on your own clothes during your stay, so be sure to ask before you change into yoga pants and a t-shirt. I was simple too sore to put on normal clothes and, due to the location of my incisions, it would have been very difficult to get through wound checks had I not been in a robe.

In the Hospital

  • If you need something, don’t be afraid to ask for it: Weather you’re in pain, need help going to the bathroom, or need another glass of ice water, don’t be afraid to ask for it from the staff. They’re there to help you and you’re not being a bother. Mind you, don’t abuse this ability by asking for something every hour as you’re not the only patient, but the staff would much rather you ask then try to do something yourself that could lead to a fall or similar.
  • Take those walks: For abdominal surgery, the protocol at my hospital was to get up and walk around (with assistance) as soon as possible post-surgery. This meant stumbling along with a walker and trailing nurse in the PACU then walking with a supportive IV pole and tech…and, eventually, walking by myself for loops around the unit. It will be difficult, but it’s amazing how much better you’ll feel after you do it. Again, ask for help if you need it. I needed help every time I got up from my med – though I did my best to spend most of the day in a chair  – and needed help walking the first few times. I stuck to walking around my unit but you may be able to walk to another part of the hospital.
  • Remember the names of your care team members: Many hospitals ask you to complete a survey or have some sort of an employee recognition program. If you have a particularly great (or poor) experience with a member of your team, make sure you note their name down somewhere to make completing those easier. I was lucky to have a great team which included a nurse who stayed with me for a full hour after I had a panic attack, a tech who sang showtunes to distract me from a 3 am blood draw, and a pair of residents who were extremely understanding of my, er, lack of pleasant demeaner during 5 am rounds.

After You’re Home

  • Keep up with medication schedules and other instructions: If there’s something you were told to do in your discharge instructions, do it. I know, sounds obvious but I feel the need to say it directly. If you have to do multiple things throughout the day, you may want to draft up a little schedule for yourself. I had one pain killer every 6 hours, one every 8, and my normal meds to worry about. A written schedule and alarms on my phone were the only reason I could keep track of it all.
  • Don’t do anything on your no-no list: Don’t take a bath or lift heavy objects or whatever your discharge instructions tell you not to do. It will be hard, as you’ll have to ask for more help than you’re probably used to having. Your hospital will have ensured you have that help at home before they let you go, so take advantage of it. Call or text or holler across the house if you need someone to do something for you.
  • Don’t worry that you’re not getting things done: I am not someone who is good at being non-productive so I had to learn that recovery from surgery is getting something done. The dishes and laundry and paying bills are not your responsibility but whoever is there (or can come over) to help you. Throw away your to do list, if you have to. Focus on relaxing and recovering.
  • Continue to keep yourself amused: I started by watching TV almost all day and doing a bit of journaling from my couch. After a few days, I felt well enough to sit at the dinning room table and browse the internet for a good portion of the day.
  • Reach out to friends: Just like when you were in the hospital, you’ll probably have to reach out to folks to get together or chat on the phone. I’ll be honest, I got sick of only being around and talking to family  after awhile. I made a lunch date with a friend, went and hung out at my local yarn store, and chatted online with a friend I hadn’t talked to in years.
  • Slowly get back to normal: As you feel better, don’t rush to get back into your normal routine. Add back in chores one at a time, starting with things like putting away clean silver wear or getting the mail. Yes, that’s the level of energy I had when I first got home. I didn’t empty the dishwasher until a full week after I was home, it took too much energy (and bending over wasn’t much fun, either). If you start to do something and it’s too much, STOP.

Anyone else have any tips for surviving surgery recovery with you sanity intact? Share them in the comments.