The idea of surgery can be daunting. You’re unconscious while someone cuts into you, more or less, and there is nothing you can do about it—it is the height of helplessness. For some, none of that is a big deal. For others—especially first-timers—surgery can be really scary. Here are some tips for how to prepare for the big day.
Truly, talk everything over with your doctor. Ask them if they’re qualified, how many procedures like yours they’ve performed, where they went to school, how long they’ve been doing this—whatever you need to know to make yourself feel safer. Their job is to care for you and prioritize your health, which means not only doing the physical part of their job correctly, but looking after your mental health, too. Answering questions to ease your anxiety is a big part of what they’re there to do, so don’t be afraid to ask.
Ask about your anesthesiologist, too, and try to get some face time with them or with a doctor who knows who will be leading your anesthesia care team. If anyone says something you don’t understand, ask for clarification. There are different kinds of anesthesia, for instance: Local, regional, and general. Local anesthesia numbs a part of your body, regional numbs a larger part, and general puts you into a state of unconsciousness where you won’t feel or be aware of anything. If you don’t know the differences there—or the definition of anything else—make sure to ask.
Grilling the members of your care team on their unique qualifications is great and all, but how ready are you for your surgery? Your surgeons went to school for years to prepare for your big day—but you need to do a few things, too.
First of all, quit smoking. Do it as soon as you can. If you know about a surgery months in advance, quit ASAP or ask your care team exactly how far in advance they want you to stop. If your surgery is more sudden, you may not get a lot of lead time, but in whatever time you do have before you go under the knife, don’t touch a cigarette. Smoking can increase anesthesia-related complications, so some surgeons—like those who specialize in cosmetic procedures—won’t even perform a surgery if you test positive for nicotine the day of.
Annie, a registered nurse who’s been in the business nine years and declined to use her last name for professional reasons, suggested “generally having a list of your medications and allergies, [and] knowing what (if any) medications may need to be changed following the surgery.” Tell your doctor what medications you take, ask if you need to stop any of them temporarily, find out when you can resume those you might have to hold off on, and get a list of any medications that might be prescribed for your recovery.
There are a few other little details you might not even think about, but we thought of them for you: You shouldn’t have metal body jewelry in when you have a surgery, so ask your doctor if they’re OK with you using plastic retainer jewelry or if they want you to remove your adornments completely.
Wear loose-fitting clothing, especially if you’ll be leaving the same day, and pack a small recovery bag. Keep a phone charger in there and maybe a comfort object, like a favorite blanket or something given to you by someone you love. Ask your doctor if you can bring slippers or a bathrobe from home to make you feel more comfortable while you recover after the procedure.
And finally, arm yourself with knowledge—but make sure it’s accurate knowledge. Annie said media literacy is important here: Trust .org or .gov sites, but “stay clear of Google and know that everyone can have a different experience.” More than anything, she recommends chatting with your care team to get the answers you’re looking for, not relying on forums or Google for everything. And take their advice seriously. When they say stop eating and drinking at a certain time the night before the surgery, stop eating and drinking. If they tell you someone has to be on site to pick you up after the procedure or you can’t leave, make sure you have someone ready to get you. Do all that work in advance so you’re not stuck thinking about it or scrambling when you’re trying to recovery.
To the best of your ability, craft a plan for your recovery. Preparing for the surgery itself will be much less intimidating if you’re also ready for what comes after it. You may need someone to bring you home, especially if you were under general anesthesia, and you may even need someone to stay with you for a while. Assemble a care team, whether it involves family members or home nurses. Go over everything you’ll need for recovery in advance with them.
“Patients should have a clear understanding of what their first week after surgery will likely look like and plan accordingly,” said Dr. Alex Sobel, a triple board certified cosmetic surgeon based in Bellevue, Wash. “This planning includes who will be caring for them for their first 24 hours (the most critical time for healing after surgery), and who will be taking them to their postoperative appointments.”
Sobel also pointed out that you’ll need someone’s help if postoperative drainage is anticipated, and you’ll even need to plot out a sleeping position in advance to make sure the location of your surgery isn’t disturbed. Pre-fill your medications at your pharmacy, too, he added, and pick up any other helpful over-the-counter aides you might need in advance.
You may be under a lot of stress for health-related reasons already or you may just be nervous about the surgery itself, but no matter what is causing you anxiety, don’t give in to the temptation to exacerbate it by reading horror stories online or staying up all night thinking about the ways it could all go wrong.
Don’t get worked up about the kind of surgery you’re having, either. You might think that a cosmetic procedure or one to correct your eyesight isn’t as important as, say, open heart surgery, but if it’s important to you, it matters.
“In elective surgery, one has the luxury of being able to plan the treatment and only after adequate review of options and alternatives proceed with the operation,” said Dr. Mo Banki, who is based in Rhode Island. “Elective surgeries are nonetheless vital to a patient’s health and well-being.”
Yes, you have more time to plan, but you also have more time to doubt yourself or catastrophize. Don’t do that. Embrace your surgery, prepare as best as you can, and make sure to schedule some time to rest and heal afterward.