As I was rolled into the operating room, I started to cry.
“What’s wrong?” asked the medical staff.
“This is so hard…I am supposed to be taking care of my baby and its just so hard to leave her…” The terror I felt at being separated from my infant was almost overwhelming.
The staff mumbled a brief reassurance but were mostly silent, likely fighting their own tears. Then, all was dark.
It was late summer, 2011. I had become a mother only a few short months before. An old, periodically inconvenient injury to my lower back transformed into an excruciatingly painful herniated disc during my fifth month of pregnancy. The birth of my daughter provided temporary relief, but when the pain returned and became almost unbearable, I felt so grateful to find a neurosurgeon who successfully repaired the injury.
As a parent of an infant, having surgery is the last thing you need to worry about. You have a zillion things to do, most of which involve the baby’s care, and if there are older children in your home, the stress multiplies. Then there are the underlying fears: What if surgery doesn’t help my condition…or makes things worse? How are we going to pay for this? How will I be able to take care of my infant and family if I am not supposed to lift anything over 10 pounds? My spouse has enough on their plate with work, let alone taking care of the children, shopping, cooking, cleaning…how are we going to manage?
Of course, we don’t always have control over when it’s time to have surgery, but if your situation allows it to be scheduled in advance, I have a few suggestions that might help make the experience better for you and your family.
First, for those mommas who exclusively breastfeed their little ones, you may want to consider introducing a bottle from time to time. We never bothered with a bottle since I planned to breastfeed for at least a year and we just took our baby with us wherever we went. BIG MISTAKE! I could not nurse my daughter until 24 hours after surgery and let’s just say things did not go well with Daddy trying to get her to take a bottle. After many stressful hours, and lots of screaming and crying, she finally gave in.
While we are on the subject of breast milk, you may wish to consider building up a supply of pumped milk in the freezer for those unexpected occasions when you may not be able to breastfeed. And stocking up on supplies doesn’t end there – the last thing you will want to do while recovering from surgery is go out and buy diapers, wipes, formula and other necessities. And though many wonderful people brought us meals after surgery, I also prepared quite a few freezer meals ahead of time as I knew I would not be able to leave the house on my own for a month after surgery. I also stocked up on disposable plates, cups and the like – who wants to do dishes when you don’t feel well?
The one blessing I found with this experience is that because my daughter was so young, she was very content to spend hours and hours playing and cuddling with me on my bed. As I was not supposed to pick her up, I arranged for neighbors, family and friends to come to my house when my husband was at work so they could help with diaper changes and whatever else I needed.
So here we are five years later. I am pretty much good as new – save for a bit of numbness in my left foot. End of the story, right?
Well, um…no. This fall, we found out my husband needed surgery. Same song, but most definitely a different verse.
So, how do you handle a parent having surgery when you have older children?
First of all, you will need to decide when and how many details you will reveal to your children about what is going on. A large part of this, of course, depends on the age and personality type of the child. As our daughter tends to be on the anxious side, we elected to wait until shortly before the surgery to tell her. We explained that Daddy had an owie on the inside and a doctor was going to fix it. She actually handled the news in stride and was on to another topic in about a minute. What were we worried about?
When a child comes along on a non-kid activity us parents are pretty good at remembering to bring items to keep them entertained. So, our arrival at the hospital found my daughter and I each hauling in an enormous backpack. Bad idea. Not only were the preoperative and hospital rooms too small to reasonably accommodate a craft project (cue image of me crawling under medical equipment to retrieve a bead) but all the patient and waiting rooms had a TV and all a kid wants to do is watch Ready Jet Go! anyway, right?
My husband’s surgery was in the Twin Cities and required an overnight hospital stay. Because we were two hours from home, we were advised to spend the second night after surgery in a hotel close by “just in case.” Extremely good advice. It was such good advice that we ended up staying two nights in the hotel. The last thing a person wants to do after major surgery is go on a two-hour car ride. Plus a most dear and thoughtful friend offered to pay for BOTH nights at the hotel. Pretty much blew our minds.
This extended time away from home led us to the other big decision we needed to make: whether or not to bring our daughter with us. Believe it or not, this would be the first time our daughter would be spending the night apart from both of us and we didn’t think this was the best time to give that a whirl. We did not want to pile worrying about our daughter on top of an already stressful experience.
And of course we wanted our sweet, nurturing little girl with us. As an infant, she was with me right up until my surgery. In addition to being able to nurse her as much as possible, it was a huge comfort to have her and my husband there with me. My husband agreed having us wait with him in pre-op took his mind off of what was to come.
This seemingly easy decision did come back to bite us, however. We just didn’t think through how tired my husband would be post-surgery and that there would be some after-care procedures we wouldn’t want our daughter to see. Just try getting some rest in a hotel room with an energetic five-year old! Sure, I could take her to the pool or other entertainment, but I wanted to be close in case my husband needed help. And some of the help I provided needed to happen behind closed doors. The wisdom of bringing our kid with us was seriously called into question while we nervously took care of his post-operative needs in the bathroom with our daughter screaming and crying for me on the other side of the door.
It was at this point I had the realization that not only is the post-operative period exhausting for the patient – it is stressful for the caregiver. Between running out to get prescriptions, helping my husband, entertaining my daughter, running out again to get meals – I barely had a moment to sit down. And it didn’t help that, upon returning home, we had piles of dishes, loads of laundry and a generally messy house that we didn’t have time to take care of before we left.
So – a little more advice. Stock up on all the post-surgical supplies you might need BEFORE the surgery. Make sure your fridge is full, the house is clean and your laundry is done. Actually take people up on their offers of help – before you leave for the hospital. Easier said than done, but you’ll be glad you made the extra effort when you come home and all you and the patient want to do is pass out.
Above all else, keep in mind that having surgery is a big stressor to the body. Most people I know who have had surgery cannot believe how much it takes out of them. It takes some people weeks to recover the energy they had before. Whether you are the patient or the caregiver, go easy on yourself and of course, ask for help! Most people are more than happy to help take care of a loved one who has had surgery.
Do you have any additional advice on how to successfully handle the experience of a parent having surgery? Please share!