After dealing with doctors on behalf of my mother who was chronically ill and disabled for ten years, one would assume I asked my own doctor all the right questions before having surgery on a deteriorating thumb joint. In the spirit of staying positive, however, I guess I decided to avoid the details. As such, I was totally unprepared for the aftermath of surgery and six weeks in a hand cast.
While you might have an excellent surgeon as I did, only other patients can truly tell you what to expect. So, speaking as a patient, here are twelve things the doctor may not tell you about surgery and simple ways you could prepare to make the best out of the situation.
1. You may be cut off from the world.
Technology is our link to the outside world for work and fun. Depending on what body part your operation involves, you may not be able to type, text or dial the phone. Consider doing the following before your surgery:
• Put an auto reply on your email even if you think you’ll be able to type. Then you won’t feel guilty or stressed if you can’t.
• Get a headset for all your phones.
• If you’re not going to be able to type for a while, invest in a voice recognition program for your computer. I used Dragon Dictate. Just be sure you train on it in advance.
• Have books and magazines on hand to fill in those lonely gaps of time.
2. Your regular wardrobe won’t do.
None of my shirts fit over my cast! The fashionista in me couldn’t survive for too long wearing my husband’s cut up old sweatshirts. I had to shop for tops that had bell sleeves while I was feeling horrible and barely able to try them on. Figure out any wardrobe limitations (if any) prior to surgery so you can have what you need when you need it.
3. You can stop the painkillers.
They give you lots of drugs after surgery, and any of them can have side effects. If you don’t need the hard-core painkillers, stop taking them. I got by on an over the counter anti-inflammatory after the second day. If your pain worsens, you can always go back to the stronger stuff.
4. You will need a regular shower.
I don’t know about you, but everyday hygiene like flossing my teeth and taking a shower are extremely important. After surgery, I couldn’t do either of these simple tasks on my own, including putting the waterproof sleeve over my cast. You’ll need a partner, friend or health-care worker to help you. When you’re clean, you’ll feel a lot better.
5. You will need to eat clean.
Anesthesia and pain meds are hard on your gut. It’s important to restore your gut with clean foods and broths—veggies, fruit, soups, herbal tea, probiotics and plenty of water. I was lucky enough to have friends bring me homemade vegetable broths and teas. I also spent a little more on groceries by buying veggies and fruit already sliced since I only had the use of one hand.
6. You may get constipated.
Have a laxative handy or ask the doctor to prescribe one to take home with you after surgery. No amount of fiber or liquid will do it. Pain meds are often constipating, and you certainly don’t need one more uncomfortable thing going on in your body.
7. You may get depressed.
As I was feeling rather low, a friend of mine mentioned that it’s common to be depressed after surgery. Just knowing that made me feel better. Have a good cry when you feel like it, but then counteract that with something that makes you laugh, like a funny movie. Also, don’t isolate yourself. If friends want to visit, let them. True friends don’t care how you look, but if you do, see #11.
8. You will need help.
It’s important to find out how long you’re going to be incapacitated. That way you can plan to have help in advance. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness; it’s the smart thing to do. Friends really do want to help you. Take whatever you can get—cooking, shopping, cleaning, errands.
9. You will need to move your body.
As soon as you’re able to, move your body. It doesn’t matter what part you can move; just move it. If you can’t walk, circle your arms. If you can’t use your arms, walk around your house. Light exercise will improve your circulation, mood and healing. A couple of days after my surgery, I decided to walk around my backyard in circles for twenty minutes, and after that, everything shifted for the better.
10. You will need to look good to feel good.
Whatever your version of looking good is whether that’s having a clean-shaven face for men or wearing a little lip gloss for women, do it or employ someone to help you do it as soon as you can. I had my hair blown dry at a salon once a week, and that made me look and feel great.
11. You can be grateful.
It’s easy to fall into a sea of self-pity after surgery, but there’s always something to be grateful for. In my case, I was grateful there was a surgery that could fix my problem, and that the pain wouldn’t last forever. Also shortly after my surgery, I heard about a friend who had fallen and had both hands in a cast, which made me so grateful I only had one hand in a cast! Everything is relative.