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How to Plan for Major Surgery

Major surgery can be intimidating, but you’ll feel more confident if you get all the information you need about your surgery beforehand. This will help you prepare for the procedure and for your recovery in the hospital or at home.

Questions to ask before surgery

Every question you have is important – don’t be shy about asking them. Here are some of the most helpful questions to get answered:

  • Why are you recommending this surgery?

  • Who will be on the surgical team?

  • Where will the surgery be done?

  • Where will the incision or incisions be?

  • What kind of anesthesia will I need?

  • Is there a risk of blood loss? If so, how should I store my own blood?

  • Will there be any scarring?

  • Is this surgery inpatient (a hospital stay of a day or more) or outpatient (home within hours after the surgery)?

  • Will I need any rehab after my surgery?

  • How long before I can go back to work or any other important activity?

  • What do I need to do to prepare for surgery, such as stopping smoking, fasting the night before, stopping certain medications, and doing hospital paperwork in advance?

  • What kind of help will I need during recovery and for how long afterward, such as help with driving, heavy lifting, and child care?

What to bring with you

Take as few personal possessions as possible to the surgery center or hospital and leave valuables like jewelry at home – you won’t be able to wear any during the procedure. You might want to bring a small bag that contains your identification and important papers, such as health insurance paperwork and a living will, if you have one. If you are staying overnight, bring personal toiletries and clothing that will be comfortable after your surgery. Don’t forget your cases for contact lenses or dentures.

What will happen during your stay

The specific details of your medical center experience will depend on the facility’s specific policies and the procedure you are having. You may:

  • Get an ID bracelet and, as another safety precaution, be frequently asked who you are and what procedure you are having.

  • Be asked about your health history by a nurse or another member of your medical team. Make sure to mention any drug, latex, or tape allergies you might have.

  • Sign informed consent agreeing to the surgery and acknowledging that you understand the risks.

  • Speak with your anesthesiologist to go over the anesthesia you’ll be given and how it works.

  • Meet with your surgeon.

  • Change out of your clothes and into a gown for surgery.

  • Have an IV drip started before the surgery.

  • Be wheeled to the surgery suite, even if you think you could walk.

  • Wake up in a recovery area after the surgery before you can move to a room (if you are staying overnight) or until you are able to go home.

  • Have an IV for a day or two if staying over.

  • Might feel pain; let a nurse know about any discomfort.

  • Walk around as soon as possible. Walking is important for recovery, and a member of your medical team, such as a nurse or a physical therapist, will probably help you take your first steps.

  • Get instructions about taking care of any incision and any other aspects of your recovery.

What to know about being discharged

You won’t be able to go home until your medical team is sure that your body is getting back to normal. You might have to use the bathroom or show other health signs.

Make sure you have a friend or loved one to help you leave the hospital and drive you home. Many surgeries require driving restrictions for the day you go home and for a few days or even weeks afterwards. You might also need help around the house or with heavy lifting, even lifting a toddler or a heavy sack of groceries.

You will probably get clear instructions for taking care of yourself at home, such as avoiding showers or baths for a certain period of time so that your incision can heal properly.

Depending on the type of surgery, you might need to be in a rehab program. Be sure to ask how often you are to do any recommended exercises or other tasks.

Signs of complications

Major surgery carries risks. Although many people heal without a problem, before you leave the hospital ask who to call if you have questions, concerns, or complications. Some signs of complications that merit a call to your doctor or surgeon include:

  • Pain that cannot be managed with prescribed medications

  • A fever over 100 degrees

  • Shaking chills

  • Signs of infection, such as redness, tenderness, heat, or pus at the surgery site

  • Difficulty with normal body functions, such as urinating or having a bowel movement

  • Swelling near the incision

  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing

  • Chest pain

Preparing yourself before surgery and knowing how to take care of yourself afterward will help minimize the risks of major surgery.