Knock me out and cut me open. Sure I’m totally fine with that…

Surgery is serious. Even if the medical consensus is that what’s required is ‘a simple procedure’, preparing physically, mentally and practically for going under the knife takes effort.

Surprisingly, I could find very little guidance online or through the hospital on preparing for surgery! So I wanted to share my story and ten tips that helped me prepare for going into surgery.

Back story

So how did I get here, lying in this hospital bed? It all started with needing to have my knee reconstructed after tearing ligaments and damaging other things in a nasty skiing accident. This is considered a relatively straightforward surgery but one that requires a lot of rehabilitation and up to a year to fully recover.

After ten months of recovering and strengthening from the initial injury (that’s before the surgery even took place), I had some time to prepare mentally and logistically for the big event. Of course there are emergency surgeries so I’m lucky in some ways.

However, irrespective of whether medical intervention is planned or not, it can be a nerve-wracking time for the patient as well as family and friends (AKA the support crew).

Some people out there approach surgery with a seemingly carefree attitude of ‘it just has to be done’, put it into the calendar, and they don’t think too much more about it. They would probably say something like, ‘Today I’m not going down the shops; I’m going in for surgery’. I’ve met quite a few of these people and I’m impressed (if the outward appearance is to be believed).

This was not the case for me. I’ve had an injection phobia since childhood and I was only starting to tackle it in my mid-thirties. As a little kid I was in hospital for all sorts of illnesses from asthma to pneumonia and at least three operations to insert gromets into my ears (very common in the swimming-obsessed city I grew up in). I developed a fear of medical procedures and, thanks to an overactive fight or flight nervous system, would always faint when having injections and blood tests.

When I was first told by the doctor, right after my accident, that I would need surgery, I was absolutely terrified. That’s the only way to describe it.

Here are some approaches I took to get from freaked out to feeling ready to say ‘let’s do this!’.

1.  Work to acceptance

Sometimes when life throws curve balls, all you can do is catch them. There is no real, sensible alternative. So I practiced accepting that I was going to have surgery. I talked to people about it, I learned more about it – even though initially it turned my stomach – so it wasn’t as scary and I slowly internalised it as something else I was going to do, like all the other things in life (get married, go to work, buy a cat etc…).

2.  Let anxiety go as it comes up

I am not an expert in managing anxiety but one of the techniques that works for me is staying in the present. So when feelings of fear and anxiety come up about the impending surgery (or whatever) I remind myself that right now I am not in that situation and that when I am, I will work through it moment by moment. There are a lot of resources out there to help people with their anxiety and I highly recommend you check them out (see the useful links section below).

3.  Trust you’ll be fine

Sure it may not be true and things might go to sh*t but there’s no point worrying about that now. The more I learned to trust in myself and accept that I could actually only change some things going into the future (for example, I couldn’t change needing the surgery but I could change how I felt about it), the more calm and centred I generally became. I love the Serenity Prayer discussed in this Huff Post article for letting anxiety go and trusting.

4.  View your surgery as the key to unlocking the positive future you hope for

I believe the perspective you have as you go towards a challenge is directly related to how you conquer that challenge. Makes sense right? I framed my surgery as a required step in the journey to getting fit, strong and able-bodied again for everything else in my future. I reminded myself that the sooner I got my ligamenty bits fixed, the sooner I could move on with my life and go on holidays again and do other things I love (like bushwalking, aerobics and travelling).

5.  Use your support crew

I thought about all the practical and emotional I would need straight after surgery. Having gone through the initial injury I had a fair idea of how difficult day-to-day life might be. Luckily my fiancé was able to take a few days off work to look after me. We developed a ‘Things That Help Make Claire Happy’ list as well as a rough routine of jobs to be done. (See image below. This also made for a very useful ‘handover document’ for when my dad came for a week to look after me.)

We also researched where we could get an ice machine (to help with pain relief and swelling) and established that I would sleep a lot (I knew the anaesthetic would knock me around). Some people may ask how they can help. Take them up on their offers. It’ll make your life easier and also make them feel good.

A photo of a piece of paper with handwritten list of things that make Claire happy

6.  Clear the decks of commitments

Get the house ready so the chores don’t play on your mind. For example, clean sheets on the bed, vacuumed carpet, tidy bedroom with books ready to go. Make sure your workplace knows about your surgery and that you’ll need some leeway through recovery. Even if you think you’ll only need 14 days to recover, take 16. Everyone I’ve spoken to, who’s gone back to work at the minimum time, has wished they’d taken more time. It’s also useful to let friends and family know that you’ll be out of contact for a bit so there isn’t pressure there.

7.  Get distractions ready for surgery day

The hospital will no doubt give you advice on how to physically prepare (for example, when to stop eating and what to wear) and what to bring or not bring to the hospital. While this is all good and practical, I would have liked more ‘how to support your wellbeing’ information, including the chance to talk with a counsellor.

Find out what can you take with you to hospital to take your mind off the impending surgery. There will be time in the waiting room, then in pre-theatre room, then in recovery.

I packed reading material, my iPod with relaxation music, and a note pad in case I wanted to write. (Interestingly, there is growing evidence that music can have a profound effect on preoperative anxiety and healing.)

8.  Minimise stress on the day

It was really important for me to get into the surgery day with a low level of stress. This meant getting sleep before hand, leaving plenty of time to get to the hospital and keeping calm on the day (including keeping noise to a minimum).

My fiancé and I talked about lots of general things like what was happening at his work and where we might like to go on holidays next. This really helped to keep my heart rate down and helped me avoid feeling sick in the stomach.

9.  Communicate with hospital staff

Ok, not long to go now, the wait to have this operation is almost over… When I was first assessed (weighed, presented with paperwork, and tagged with a hospital bracelet) I felt very emotional. Rather than holding it in, I cried and told the nurse how I was feeling. I told her that I was nervous. She was very compassionate, telling me ‘It’s ok, everyone is nervous’. I felt better after that. (I’ve since read that  talking about your anxieties means you’re more likely to feel better)

While lying in the bed waiting to be wheeled in to surgery I got cold so I asked for a warm blanket and then I just breathed, listened to my relaxation music and stayed present in the moment. I also took an interest in the people around me and joked with the nurses and the anaesthetist.

I had guessed that I would be very worried when it came to having the canula inserted into my hand for the anaesthetic. Logically, I knew it would be quick. So I looked away and, honestly, it didn’t hurt much at all. I did warn the anaesthetist that I might faint and funnily enough he told me he had a needle phobia and hated people sticking needles in him; Ummm…. I think he tells everyone that to put them at ease! But it helped. Then I just relaxed and thought about the nice day outside.

After I was wheeled in to the operating theatre a nurse asked me to shuffle across to another bed and after I cracked a joke about how uncoordinated I was, that was the last thing I remember!

10.            Remind yourself of your power

One last tip: when I’m faced with difficulties, I remember a time when I came out the other side of something scary or awful. Can you think of one of those times? Maybe you were really sad or suffering an illness. Remember how you made it through. What inner power did you tap into? How did you soothe yourself and tell yourself it was going to be ok? How did you care for yourself?

I believe you have the tools to help yourself feel better. And if you need to prepare more actively, with mindset then there are many people that would like to share their experiences and help you, including us here at Recover from Injury.

Useful links

Some of my points above, I have found, reflect patient-centred care guidelines, which you can read about more in this article ‘Getting it right: why bother with patient-centred care?’ from the Medical Journal of Australia.

Here are some other articles and tips you might like:

Better links welcome so please get in touch or comment below if you’ve found a really great resource.

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