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  • Writer's pictureMental Gear Closet

Your post-surgery game plan


I recently found myself in the ER as an “annoying” stomach pain I’d been tracking for a week suddenly turned into emergency surgery.  Twelve hours later, I was home recovering from my first major operation.  As an athlete I’ve been through injuries, doctor visits and rehab but this was an experience on another level.  Here’s what I wish I had known to best prepare for my post-op experience.



Mindset

Your recovery will take intentional planning, effort and even sacrifice.  You’ll have to pay attention to tasks that you’d otherwise do without a second thought.  This will feel both tiring and annoying.  Expecting this though will prevent it from taking you by surprise and will hopefully lessen the emotional impact.


Also, trying to “push” the process or live normally without interruption may actually increase your frustration and slow your recovery process.  Therefore be alert to these common traps.



Make the basics a top priority

After surgery, everything will feel harder for a while.  Simply getting out of a chair, going to the bathroom, eating, drinking water, etc may feel monumental.  Don’t count on these tasks to come naturally, for now.


Instead, pause and plan these tasks out.  For example, what can you eat comfortably?  When do you need to eat or how often?  How quickly or how much can you eat at one time?  Etc.


Also, while your fully healthy / normal body has more latitude to function even if you skip a meal or get a little less sleep, your post-surgery body will be hit harder by these small misses. Therefore, plan these basics and make them a top priority:

  • Nutrition

  • Hydration

  • Sleep

  • Stress management

  • Movement (e.g., short walking, stretching or other recovery exercises)



Medication routine

You will most likely have one or more medications for pain management or other symptoms following your operation.  While the instructions may sound simple, it will be easy to fall off track or forget when you took which one, especially if you made a change to your routine in the moment, etc.

 

Simplify your routine by:

  • Using apps to remind you what to take when.  (I chose Round as it was simple, free and had a great user interface.)

  • Choose a designated spot for your medications.  If a medication requires food then the kitchen may be the best spot.  If it’s a bedtime only medication, it may be best stored by your bed and away from your other daytime medications so as not to confuse them.


Pause to notice the side effects AND which ones need to be taken with food so that these don’t cause surprising negative consequences.  Personally, I realized that some of my extreme exhaustion was most likely coming from a medication I was taking throughout the day.  As I did not need it, I adjusted the timing (with medical consultation) in a way that notably improved my daily experience.


Also, do you have medication and/or nutrition support for these common side effects?

  • Nausea and vomiting

  • Diarrhea

  • Inability to sleep

  • Constipation



Food and hunger

You may notice one of three effects:

  • No hunger.  You have to set up a schedule and reminders to make yourself eat enough for recovery.

  • You’re hungry but when you eat what you want, you feel sick or have nausea and therefore need to manually override some of your hunger cravings or change your diet/quantity.

  • You’re hungry and can comfortably tolerate whatever you choose to eat. 


Review your discharge summary notes or ask your doctor what foods make the most sense to eat following surgery.  However, even if you’re told that you should be able to eat what you want, your body will give you critical information around what you can actually tolerate.  Pay attention to these signals.



Activity and movement

Check your discharge summary notes for your doctor’s recommendations around how much activity you SHOULD do (e.g., walk a little every hour) and should NOT do (wait at least one month before any strenuous exercise).  Heed these warnings as you do not want to needlessly sacrifice weeks or months of progress.


Also note that the movements you should do (e.g., physical therapy exercises, stretches that move painful body parts) may feel uncomfortable and/or boring.  Expect this.  While pushing yourself too hard / too early is a common trait amongst athletes given we’ve been trained to push through pain and discomfort, you probably want to turn that quality down while in recovery as it is less helpful here.  Instead, use your persistence to stick to the helpful but uncomfortable routines that will actively serve you.



Support

This may be one of the trickiest parts of your recovery to dial in.  You may want to do things yourself, feel uncomfortable asking for help, have difficulty eliciting the type of support needed from your spouse/partner, or legitimately have few resources to pull from.  Here are several tips to start with.


(See THIS blog post for more information.)


If you are an “I want to do it myself” person:


I hear you.  I’m the same way.  If you are a competitive athlete or person who regularly trains, chances are your physical healing may be legitimately quicker than it is for other people.  You may also be more comfortable challenging yourself to do uncomfortable things that in some situations (emphasis on the “some”) could even expedite your healing.  However, it is also easier for us to make poor decisions that can jeopardize our health.  Therefore:

  • Have at least one other person to reality check your decisions.

  • Stay mindful.  The gap between too tentative versus pushing too hard can be small.  Mindful movement will help you find this sweet spot.



If you are an “I feel uncomfortable asking for help” person:


You’re in good company.  My best tool for this is to get strategic.

  • Make a list of 2-5 things that put strain or stress on your body - mentally or physically - that you would find helpful to receive support around.

  • Then make a list of as many people as you can think of.

  • All of these people will be supportive in certain ways and to a certain level, but no one will be helpful in every way or all the time.  Therefore note who can provide which type of support, and when.  Here are some examples:

  • Sending you funny content or inspiration messages to ease your mind.

  • Ordering food that’s delivered to your house.

  • Shopping or running errands for you and bringing things to your house.

  • Cooking something or completing a task at your house.

  • Coming to spend time with you even if that means bringing a book, show or work to just sit with you while doing.

  • Reach out to folks, either individually or via a general post/text, so that they know how to help. Otherwise you most likely hear the well meaning and yet vague and undefined "let me know what I can do” invitation, which you and I both know you’ll never do.



If you are experiencing “My partner isn’t as helpful as I want them to be.”


Several factors could be at play here but here are two frequent culprits:

  1. Your partner doesn’t know what you’re going through and is therefore not anticipating your needs, or feeling the same urgency around attending to them.

  2. In normal, everyday life, your partner does not share equally in the invisible labor, domestic labor and/or mental load within the house or your relationship.  This is therefore unsurprisingly showing up in your recovery journey however now, you’re not able to work around or tolerate this inequity as much.


Clear and assertive communication, "I feel ..." statements, setting up helpful triggers (when X happens, do Y), as well as creating plans/routines/systems are all tools to utilize.  However these may be best implemented with the help of an individual or couples therapist especially as they tools may challenge deeply held norms that have long been established in the relationship.  (Click HERE for information on how to find a good therapist for you.)



If you are an “I live alone or have few sources of support” person:


You may need to get a little more creative OR stretch a little farther out of your comfort zone in order to gain the support you need.  Here are a few things to start with.


Use the steps above to make a list of people that you know.  You may not feel very close to any one person however if there was ever a time to call on the relationships you do have, now is it.  And remember … even taking some tasks or mental load off your plate will help ease your recovery.

  • In addition, consider both free and paid services.  These exist for a reason.

  • Curbside pick up

  • Free delivery from local grocery stores

  • Apps like Instacart  for food and goods delivery

  • Apps like Rover or Wag for pet care

  • Apps like TaskRabbit for help with odd jobs around the house including yard work and house cleaning.  I’ve worked for and/or used many of these sites and they are incredibly helping and often very affordable!



Best wishes on a speedy recovery!  If you need a little extra emotional support or help in your recovery planning, feel free to reach out here.

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