This post is for my good friend Andrew. Andrew just dodged a couple of HUGE bullets. He went in for surgery last week for pancreatic cancer. It was found early while checking for a congenital heart problem. Amazingly, it turned out to be the 1-2% chance that it wasn’t cancer. That’s the great news. Unfortunately, he went into anaphylactic shock after surgery and spent a week in a coma. He’s OK and finally back home, resting, to the great relief of family and friends.
So I’ve been thinking about surgery these last few days. It is incredible what doctors can do; surgery can save our lives. But it is tough on us, even when everything goes perfectly smoothly.
And coming home from the hospital is hard. We are frail and so dependent on others. At first I struggled just to get out of bed or to go to the bathroom. I’m a very independent person, so it was painful to not be able to care for myself. I remember my anger and humiliation at having to have my mother help me to bathe. (Mom, I know you will read this. Please know that I do appreciate that you were there and able to help me. I will always be grateful, but it was difficult for me, as a grown woman, to have my mother bathe me.) My partner, Ron, told me I didn’t really stink that much so I should wait until I was stronger. But I wanted to bathe, so Ron and my mother obliged. I got clean, but felt completely frustrated and exhausted.
It’s not just the physical hardship, though. Although we’re happy to be back home, it can be a strangely unsettling experience. In the hospital we receive so much attention. I realize this sounds totally narcissistic, but it’s easy to get used to all the attention from nurses, doctors, family and friends. Then suddenly we’re home, struggling to fend for ourselves, and we are reminded that life has gone on without us. Bills still need to be paid; telemarketers still call; our husbands/wives still snore; our neighbor’s dog still wakes us up with barking.
And if our surgery was cancer-related (or some other life-threatening accident or disease), we confront our own mortality – but that’s a topic for another day, maybe best over a glass of scotch.
Whenever I have the chance, I stress to people the importance of exercise before surgery. I think of it as training for surgery. First, exercise is a great stress reliever. Also, whatever you do in the weeks before surgery will help your body in recovery after surgery. Healthy heart and lungs will help speed your recovery, giving you more energy. And strong muscles, especially core and lower body, mean better stability and mobility after surgery. That means fewer falls and greater independence.
After surgery, walk. Get up and walk, even when it’s tough and you’re tired. Walk, and keep walking. Walking gets your heart and lungs working, helping to clear the anesthesia and other drugs from your body. Walking also helps stimulate your appetite and regulate your bowels, always important after surgery.
Later, after you doctors tell you it’s OK, you have to begin stretching to regain full range of motion and work to regain strength.
But first, walk. Walk, walk, walk.