Knowing that you have major surgery in your near future can have you living with a level of constant anxiety. Whatever you’re dreading — be it the pain, the rehab, or a lengthy recuperation period — the only way to alleviate some of that anxiety is to prepare for it. We’ve gathered some recommendations for ways you prep for major surgery — mentally and physically — to undergo major surgery.

Make Sure You Know What to Expect

The fear of the unknown is sometimes the worst part of anticipating a major operation. To alleviate some of this angst, first ensure that you have a surgeon you trust. Whether you’ve gotten recommendations from friends, your primary care physician, the internet, or just relied on gut instincts, you need to feel confident that you are in good hands.

We see two people sitting at a table, but just their hands. One person is a doctor, going over some papers on a clipboard. The other is a woman holding a purse on her lap, gesturing with her hands.One way to develop trust is to make your surgeon earn it. Ask tons of questions. Ask about the procedure itself, and if you can, have someone come with you to take notes. Some potential questions include:

  • What is the expected recovery time? What treatments, medications, diet restrictions, or home care do you anticipate will be needed?
  • What are the anticipated pain management techniques? 
  • Does the procedure have a good success rate? And how often have you performed it yourself?
  • What are some possible complications?
  • What should I expect on the day of the procedure? Will it require fasting, new medications, pre-anesthesia?
  • How can I contact you if I experience any complications?

The benefit of having someone else take notes is that you can use this time to watch how the surgeon reacts to different questions. If they’re cagey about how you can reach them, for example, then you can anticipate that they are tough to get a hold of, and decide whether or not that bothers you. You need to go into the surgery having total confidence in this doctor, so ask whatever questions you need to feel that way.

Try to “Work Ahead” 

It will be most helpful to get things done in advance as much as possible so you don’t feel like you’re falling behind, both for work (if necessary) and your recuperation period. There are really two aspects to this: setting up an area for yourself to recover where you are comfortable and have easy access to things that you need; and ensuring that the tasks you usually perform will get accomplished.

In terms of preparing for your recovery, here are some things that are very helpful to hammer out beforehand:

  • If follow-up appointments are needed — such as physical therapy or post-op check-ins — schedule them in advance.
  • Fill any scripts for post-operative pain medications before the surgery so that you have them on hand 
  • Acquire any home rehabilitation tools that you think you’ll need, such as ice/compression therapy machines, bathroom assistance devices, special pillows to sleep with, or even something as simple as a backpack so you can transport things without having them in your hands
  • If you think you’ll need special accommodations like a temporary handicap sticker, apply for it well in advance.
  • Make sure your freezer and fridge are well-stocked with pre-made meals. (Friends and family may keep you fed at first, but you’d be surprised how quickly you can get sick of lasagna.)
  • Gather all medical paperwork into one place, ideally in a folder that you can have physically available at a moment’s notice. That way you can easily access it for any questions that you might have, or someone else can access it in an emergency.
  • Woman is relaxing on a couch with a bunch of medicines and kleenex on a table next to herArrange care for your pets, if you anticipate that you will have difficulty fulfilling your usual routines.
  • Finally, make yourself a little rehab room. If you know your mobility will be limited, set up a place to sleep and rest that is close to a bathroom as well as the kitchen (if possible.) Ideally, you should have a “bedside” table that will become the place to gather any medications, water, your phone, TV remotes, or other devices that you know you’ll want within reach.

Mentally Prepare Yourself for Setbacks

Perhaps the hardest part of anticipating surgery is mentally preparing yourself for all of the “what-ifs.” In addition to giving thought to worst-case scenarios (without dwelling on those!) you also need to be ready for any minor setbacks you might encounter. For example, if you’re getting orthopedic surgery you need to be mentally prepared for the procedure to only fix part of the problem. If you were hoping it would fix things entirely and then it doesn’t, that can be incredibly discouraging. If you’re braced for that possibility, however, you will be better equipped to handle it and work towards a better outcome.

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