Kermit's during-surgery expectations were way off. Screenshot from muppet.wikia.com
Disclaimer: The following is based on my experiences and observations at about a dozen hospitals across the country. While I feel like it generally applies to the hospital experience (including some hospitals with glistening and lofty reputations for customer service and/or academic prowess), I can’t say it applies to every or even most hospitals out there.
And just to be clear, for the hospital staff who have and will care for me: Nurses are awesome, and none of this is their fault.
1. You'll at least get tons of sleep and rest and reading time, and get to be drugged up the whole time!
No, you won’t, and here’s why:
You have to prepare for leaving the hospital almost as soon as you leave surgery. Like a prisoner’s parole hearing, there are milestones you must meet to prove to the doctors that you’re ready for release. This means doing regular slothy laps down the hallway with your stupid IV pole that rolls like the worst grocery cart you’ve ever pushed; eating three “meals” (broths) a day; and generally seeming like you’re gaining strength. If you had an intestinal resection, the milestones include farting, eating solid food, and not gushing blood out of your butt.
Staff members are constantly in your room (except when your IV pole is beeping at 3 am, or you want ice water). Someone is always coming in to wake you up and check on you at shift change, or give you your meds, or finally reset your beeping IV machine.
Especially soul-crushing is when they wake you to take blood at 3 am so labs are back for the doctor’s morning rounds. Which start at like 6 am, so heads up. Doctors want to get you out of the way before their office visits and surgeries. The golden slow hours of sleep-grabbing tend to be 3 pm to 5 pm, 11 pm to 2 am, and 4 am to 6 am. Much how they tell new moms to sleep whenever the baby’s sleeping, nab all the naps you can while you're left alone. But again, this is not reliable. Don’t worry, you’ll sleep again someday.
Make it clear that everyone who plans to visit should come at the beginning of your hospital stay.
Much more on family and friends in a minute, but your visitors will just show up at the hospital whenever, so don’t fret about having a schedule or point of contact for people to obey. I had in my head that there’d be a spreadsheet where people would sign up for 20-minute time slots when I was less likely to be sleeping, eating or farting.
It turns out, people treat it like a wake – we know she’s not going anywhere, so I’ll drop in with some flowers and food whenever. And this is appropriate, because there is NEVER a consistent good time of day for people to visit (more soon on the best time of your stay as a whole for people to visit).
You also have to start coming off of IV narcotic painkillers almost as soon as you start them. And withdrawal is a real bitch. Not only are these drugs extremely convenient and fun, they’re of course horribly addictive and life-destroying and should be used rarely and not for longer than necessary. So your body and brain may cling to them more than you expected, much like a romance-novel heroine desperately clings to the leg of her brawny scoundrel as he callously abandons her for another. A heroine clinging to heroin.
I had the best time clicking my IV pain med button – I figured out it would release a mini-dose every 9 minutes, and it became a game to try to wait just long enough till it would give me the juice and I would hear a cheerful little “ding!” Yes, addiction runs in my family.
No one gets to go home with “Get Well Soon” balloons and an IV morphine drip.
You transition to pills, but pills don’t really cut the pain the same way. And all the meds are extremely constipating anyway, which quickly becomes a huge problem once your gut is awake. The nurses are the pill gatekeepers, and they start to ask you obnoxious questions like, “Are you sure you really need a pain pill, or are you just asking because it's been four hours?” The IV button never said insensitive things like that.
Take the pain pills as needed, but know the party is ending, and you don’t have to go home but you can’t stay here. (And know that if you successfully get them to extend your IV-pain-med time, you will be staying there -- you're extending your hospital stay by that same amount of time. No one gets to go home with “Get Well Soon” balloons and an IV morphine drip.)
It’s best to catch a begrudging ride with some extra-strength acetaminophen ASAP, before things get too weird and sad and dangerous. (I was taunted by Muppet monsters popping out from under my hospital bed during one particularly rough withdrawal. When I went home, I kept having auditory hallucinations that our air vents were playing lullaby music.)
As you might imagine, drug withdrawal does not help at all with sleep. What does help with sleep: eye masks, neck pillows, and sleep headphones playing soothing music or podcasts. You might get really itchy from the IV morphine, so the nurses might give you IV Benadryl, which will also knock you out fast.
You’re not going to feel like any heavy reading, so leave the novels at home. Flipping through low-brow magazines, maybe. Streaming TV, possibly (don’t count on the skimpy hospital cable). Music and silly conversation and painkiller comas, definitely.
2. Your family, friends and co-workers will be on their best behavior, because they know you're sick!
While sitting in the ER on a Friday night with a 103-degree fever, chills and stabbing abdominal pain, I was copied on an email from my (former) boss to one of my clients. My boss already knew I was in the ER for unexplained symptoms. She wrote: “Katie is sick today but I’m sure she’ll be back on Monday morning and can take care of this ASAP.”
I was impressed with her certainty about a situation I found to be pretty unclear at the moment (and it turned out I wasn't back at work till the next Thursday, probably solely out of my body being spiteful about that email). I replied to the client, copying my boss as well as another co-worker who was actually sane, and she was happy to take care of the issue on my behalf. Sigh.
I also had family members:
(Those three bullets pretty much condemned everyone in my family. Still love y'all! I'm not perfect either -- I didn't even come see some of you or send a card when you were in the hospital, so I suck more.)
You will be a fun mess, who will be so hopped up on meds that you’ll be thrilled all these people are in one room with you and brought you presents!
So, set clear expectations with your boss – “I am having a major surgery, and my doctor says if all goes well, I can aim for returning to teleworking on (date) and in-office work on (date), but she warned that I can't be sure until we see how the surgery goes and how quickly I'm recovering. But I promise to keep you regularly updated on my return as much as I am able. I apologize for any inconvenience, and thank you!” (You probably can leave off the apology, unless you’re Southern -- excessive passive-aggressive apologizing is kind of our thing.)
For family members, make it clear that everyone who plans to visit should come at the beginning of your hospital stay. This may seem counterintuitive: “But I’ll be a mess! I’ll be all drugged up!” Exactly. You will be a fun mess, who will be so hopped up on meds that you’ll be thrilled all these people are in one room with you and brought you presents! Everything you say is hilarious and you are universally adored! Yay! And oh yeah, you survived the surgery you were so worried about! Yay again! You’ll even still be thinking how cool it is that you never have to get up and pee or crap, because you conveniently still have a catheter and your bowels aren’t “awake” yet. And everyone’s being so nice! Whee!
Enjoy the visitors and the euphoria and the Barbie-like lack of bodily excretions in these early post-op days, but be prepared to gear up to go home and get some much anticipated sleep.
Next month, I’ll talk about four other big false surgery beliefs, including the condition of your hospital room, what happens when you press the call button, and how you’ll feel mentally and physically.