What to expect when you have an operation

Posted on 29.07.2012


It occurred to me sometime in the last hazy week that not many people know what exactly happens when you go in for any kind of operation. I thought it would be a good idea to share that, since I’ve been through 4 already and they’ve all pretty much gone the same way.

Granted, all but one of mine were outpatient procedures, and not every operation is the same (clearly), but even the one that wasn’t outpatient went in pretty much the same way. So I feel like I might have some info to share. I thought about it just after my surgery on Tuesday, as I considered the fact that my op in Germany was exactly the same as past ops in the US were. All of mine have dealt with ladybits, but the pre- and post-op stuff that happens is all about the same, I’ve heard.

Below you’ll find my list of ‘What to Expect and What Happens’. I hope you find it helpful, and it alleviates any fears you might have going in. Because we’re all afraid of going in. And most times, there’s really no reason to be afraid!


When you need an operation and have scheduled it, you usually have to go in at least a few days beforehand to discuss things with the hospital, and maybe even your surgeon. You’ll most likely go in for some tests and a general check-up, so the hospital and operating team have an idea of your general health and what they need to do or be aware of.

In my cases, this has involved having sonograms and blood work. The doctors need to have a look from the outside to gauge if there are any things they need to be aware of, to take measurements, discuss methods. They need to know your blood type. They need to know if you’re pregnant!

In other cases, it could involve having x-rays or even MRIs or a CAT scan. This is normal. They need as much information as possible before they open you up, in order for everything to run smoothly.

You’ll have a meeting with a doctor OR the surgeon, in which they’ll tell you EXACTLY what will happen. You can ask questions. Ask away, they have the answers. You’ll learn about recovery time, the procedure, etc.

Also, you’ll probably have a meeting with the anaesthesia doctors, who will give you the LONGEST LIST EVER of every single thing that could possibly go wrong while you are under anaesthesia. This is required, and you’ll have to sign something at the end saying you’re aware of the dangers of using anaesthetics. But trust me, you need to be asleep most of the time.

There are different types of anaesthesia: local (you get this a lot at the dentist), full (when you go to sleep), etc. Yes, you might get an infection. You might bleed more than normal. You might have an allergic reaction around the area where you were injected, if you get injected with it. You also might not wake up. This doesn’t happen nearly often enough for you to be concerned, but they have to warn you about it, nonetheless. Have no fear. Anaesthesia is an excellent thing. I’ll describe that later.

You will not be allowed to eat or drink anything after x:00 the night before the surgery. This is so the anaesthesia works. If you’ve got a full stomach, it takes a lot more/much longer, and we don’t need that, do we? Get under and asleep as fast as you can, soldier.

Speaking of eating and drinking, if you’re planning to be home shortly after the operation whether you live alone or not, take this advice: clean your house and stock the fridge, even prepare meals, BEFORE going to the hospital. Because you won’t feel like doing much post-op, and if the house is dirty (and you’re anal like me), you’ll be laying wherever noticing the dust and dirt accumulating. Give yourself a head start and make sure it’s clean before you can’t clean it up.


Just before the op, day of:
You’ll be asked to come in at x:00. This is NOT your op time, and you don’t need to get there any earlier. This is more like check-in for a flight. You’ll sign in, fill out some more forms, and be directed to your recovery room (most likely) where you will get to change into your fashionable hospital gown, get acquainted with your bed, and leave your stuff in a locker or closet that will be yours.

They might ask you to shave. They might not, and will just do it for you once you’re already asleep. They will come in and ask how you’re feeling, and most likely detail what will happen in the surgery again. Then they’ll give you a pill which I believe is a light sedative, that will have to be taken about 20 – 30 minutes before the procedure starts. Still no eating or drinking allowed.

Then you get to hang out and wait until they come in and get you. It’s go time.

This is when the emotional shit will start, if it hasn’t already. And this is what I want to warn you about, along with some other stuff that might come later, depending on your situation. As you are being wheeled on your bed to the operation station, you’re probably going to start to flip out a bit, even though you’ve taken a sedative. Try not to thrash around or call people names. Speaking in tongues is not recommended.

You’ll start to think that maybe something will go wrong. Did I shave properly? What if I don’t wake up? What if I start bleeding and they can’t stop it, and I end up in some sort of coma? Did I answer all of the important emails? Write a will? tell everyone that I loved them?

Trust me, it’s normal. I’ve been in enough times to tell you that this might not get better until you’re a seasoned veteran, but at that point, I think we can agree you’ve got bigger problems. Try to relax. It’s ok to cry, the doctors are used to it. If you’re lucky, the person in charge of you will be an excellent and sympathetic soul who will talk to you about stupid shit to distract you, or tell you that you’ll be fine. And they’re right. Don’t forget where you are: in a hospital, and this is totally routine.

That doesn’t mean you won’t be scared when you get wheeled into the room and see all of that equipment. The doctors are all going to be nice or at least business-like. They do this all day, every day. It’s their job. They know what they’re doing. They’ll ask you questions as they inject you with anaesthesia. They’ll have a friendly conversation with you about your job or where you’re from as they hold the mask over your face that means you’re going under in 5, 4, 3 …


Waking up
… and just like that, you’re awake again as if you didn’t even sleep. Anaesthesia is great for this. You might still be in the operating room and being wheeled out, or you might already be in the recovery room. If you’ve got friends and family who came with you, they’ll be nearby and you might wake up to their smiling (or concerned) faces, or see them sitting in the chair in your room as you’re getting wheeled in.

At this point, try not to discuss quantum physics with whoever is there. Don’t force yourself to wake up any faster than you will naturally, because that is an exercise in futility. You’re still drugged from the anaesthesia, even if you’re awake. You’re ‘coming around’, as they say. And the drugs have a course to run.

Your mouth will be dry and you’ll THINK you are starving. YOU ARE NOT: you’re dehydrated. You will most likely not be allowed to drink water until x:00 + 6 – 8 hours. You will crave water. You will be given a little cup with a little water, with a spongy lollipop-type thing to suck on or wet your lips with. Resist the urge to take the stick out and drink the water, because the reason you’re not allowed to eat or drink for what feels like FOREVER is because of the anaesthesia: you will not be able to keep it down.

I learned that one the hard way on Tuesday, and all I had was one very tiny glass of water that my visitor filled for me. Within 15 minutes, I was vomiting it back up. This is when I learned that my legs worked fine, because I felt it coming on and bolted to the bathroom. If your legs were operated on, you won’t be so lucky. So really, don’t eat or drink until they tell you to.


Whatever time they tell you you’re going home, don’t play it in the lottery. Chances are there will be some sort of hold-up, whether it’s more tests, extra (necessary) antibiotics, or just paperwork and administrative BS. They might want to ‘keep you for observation’ for an extra day, or week. Whatever it is, try to enjoy your mini vacation. Learn your body’s current limits and try not to go over them.

Try to keep yourself occupied, or at the very least, sleep as it comes. If you’ve got visitors, really thank them for coming. Don’t feel the need to entertain them, and don’t worry about that concerned look on their faces. Appreciate it all, because you woke up!! That’s a great thing, isn’t it? And now you’re healthier than you were when you went in (most likely), so there can be much rejoicing.

After the surgery, the doctors will come in (once you’re lucid ENOUGH) and tell you how it went. Hopefully it went fine. They’ll tell you what you are and are not allowed to do in the coming x days, weeks or months. They’ll tell you about any special further operations or treatments you might need. They will answer your questions, so ASK.


The show’s over, time to recover
Now you have to prepare for recovery, along with the possible emotional crap that might come along with it.

In my personal and most recent case, I was afraid I’d wake up feeling like I’d made a terrible mistake. That was (and still is) thankfully not the case, but I tried to prepare mentally for that in the days before. But there are other things you should prepare for as well, which I’d like to detail for you:

~ Inability to function as before the surgery: In the days/weeks following your operation, you will not be able to just get up and go out and about as you’d like to. For the first few days, you might not be able to do more than lay on your couch/the hospital bed falling in and out of sleep. Don’t fight this. You can’t force your recovery, no matter how badly you’d like to.

I had all of these grandiose plans for after this most recent operation, in which I wanted to do a TON of reading, draw my visitors and watch films all day. None of that happened, minus three films in 5 days. Slacker, much? Really, don’t expect to be able to do things. And don’t be angry with yourself when you can’t do things. Resistance is futile.

~ Not allowed to be physically active: This is another big one, especially for me. Before and after the surgery, I asked about my fitness activities: Budo, walking, swimming, yoga, running, bodyrock workouts, push ups, sex! How long, dear doctor, until I can do these things?? Two to three weeks, MINIMUM was the answer. And I was pissed, because I thought I’d at least be able to go swimming or SIT IN WATER much sooner. But no, in that case, you can’t get the location wet until after the skin has healed. Which means that I waited 4 days to even shower, and then, I wrapped the areas in bandages and plastic and athletic tape.

~ Needing help from people: Pride is a really bad thing to have when you’re ill or recovering. It’s an issue I’ve dealt with my entire life, and I’m thankfully over it (mostly). This goes along with the previous two subjects: when you’re not able to do things and not really able to stay awake, it helps to have some friends or family members close by. You won’t want the help. You will WANT to wipe your own ass, bathe yourself, shave your own legs, and take the stairs yourself, but you might not be able to. You might just really need more juice or fruit from the store, but you’re not allowed to drive. If your friends/family offer to help, accept it graciously and KNOW that they are not looking down on you for needing help. No one is, and true friends are going to be there for you, checking in, whether you need them to or not.

Don’t underestimate the value of visitors and concerned friends. Even if they just sit in the room with you reading a book, it’s better than being alone and letting your mind wander… Because at this stage in the game, you’re going to feel alone. And who wouldn’t, being stuck in a bed/apartment/house for a specific amount of time while the rest of the world continues to turn? After having gone through surgery that might have been life-saving? Not being able to move alone or without assistance?

This brings me to a very important point, which is:
~ You will learn who your real friends are: this is something that we often don’t need to deal with, and it’s a terrible time to have to learn it.

I list my true friends as the people who help me move, pack, drive me to the airport, offer their homes when I am in need. I’ve since added ‘people who visit me or at least check in with me more often than not after an operation’. It’s something I already learned in the past, but my last major op was in 2003, so it’s been a while. We forget these things over time, until we need them again. Memory is a funny thing, like that.

People you never expected to care will visit you and be there for you. People you expected to care might not. Everyone has their own lives and their own reasons, whichever category they fall into. And as easy as it is, we can’t really be mad at those who fall into the second group. Disappointed, yes. But nothing more.

It will be very easy, when you’re feeling alone, to be angry at the people who said they’d visit and then didn’t. But life happens. And it will be harder than normal to deal with when all you can do is lay wherever you are and think about stuff like that. So try not to. Instead, think about the emails you’re getting from faraway friends. Think of the visitors you have had. Think of the things you’ll do when you can. But try not to harbor the anger, because it will eat you alive. 

Because of this, I personally suggest staying away from social networking sites like Facebook, simply because it will be amazingly hard to read about what the rest of the world is doing while you lay around, and they could be visiting or calling you. Try to disconnect a bit, even if that just means you’re available via email or phone. There’s nothing wrong with disappearing for a while. The people who care will be there, and you don’t need to worry about the rest.

This has been the hardest thing for me to deal with in the past week, especially being so far from home. Thankfully, my friends have been there for me, via skype and email, willing to talk, asking questions, and making sure to be on top of me and my recovery. We can’t expect that from everyone, so just be thankful for who you ARE getting it from.

If nothing else, you’ll learn who is worth making time for. Which is a sad thing to learn, but sometimes we need to be reminded. Especially in this current age of ‘friends’ online and keeping large networks, for personal or professional reasons. I’ve spoken more to a woman in Belgium, who I spent a total of 5 hours with last year, than I have to some people in my own city in the past week. Thank goodness for the internet and international calling plans. It closes a gap that we might perish from otherwise.


I hope this post has been helpful. I appreciate any comments adding things I might have missed. And thanks for reading. It feels very nice to be able to sit up and write.

Posted in: health, medical, surgeries