Questions to ask before surgery

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Patients usually have questions before a surgical procedure. I like to know my patients are involved in their own care, and I appreciate listening to their concerns, answering their questions and knowing they’re planning on a successful recovery.

I think there are three main parts to preparing for surgery: what to do before surgery, what happens on the day of the actual procedure and what to expect during recovery, which includes immediate after-care in the hospital and the whole recovery process, which many patients don’t realize can actually take months.

What are the best ways to prepare for surgery?

The most important part of preparation for surgery is to minimize any risk factors that you can control. For some patients, I compare preparation for surgery to a runner training for a race. Before you’re wheeled into the surgical suite, your job is to be in the best shape possible.

I recommend that my patients avoid tobacco as a general rule, but I know some people still smoke. Smoking increases the risks of complications and makes it much harder to heal the wounds after surgery. I always recommend that my patients plan to stop smoking before surgery—even decreasing smoking is beneficial. I may refer them to a smoking cessation program to get extra support to quit.

Diabetics should get their blood sugar under the best control possible. This is an excellent time to optimize your nutrition. I sometimes refer patients to a dietitian to help them balance the right caloric intake. You need physical reserves to go through surgery and recovery, and might need to consider nutritional supplements.

I recommend exercise, too. Starting a program of regular walking or other movement will help you recover faster.

If you’re facing a complicated surgery, you might speak with people who’ve experienced it. Some procedures, like ostomy, can be life altering and support groups can help you get mentally prepared. They can also help you be better prepared for the recovery period.

What are the risks with this procedure?

You should feel confident asking your surgeon about risks associated with any procedure you’re planning. Understanding risks will help you decide if surgery is right for you. There are two types of risk. The first type are the really serious risks that are possible but have a low probability. In other words, something that might happen, but odds are low.

The second type of risk is less serious, but more common. Infections are always possible, for example. Talking to your surgeon about the risks of surgery will help you understand much better what to expect.

What should I expect the day of surgery?

You should expect the clinic staff to remind you about the specific day-of-surgery logistics. You should write down your arrival time, which may be early. Because other procedures may occur before yours, be prepared to be flexible.

You can help prevent mistakes. Make sure you understand what your surgery is and be able to explain it in simple terms. If you’re having a colectomy, for example, you could say, “I’m having part of my colon removed.”

You should also expect to meet lots of people. In addition to the surgeon, you’ll meet an anesthesiologist, someone from the pain team, the circulator nurse who keeps an eye on everything in the operating room, plus trainees and medical students who’ll be observing, helping and learning. The really nice thing about a big team? They’re all taking care of you.

The circulator nurse is good about keeping in touch with waiting room staff to give updates to your family, which brings us to another question.

Where should my family wait for me? And how long will this take?

I always try to set expectations for my patients’ family members, because your family can feel anxious on the day of surgery. There’s usually a time range and your family should be prepared to be flexible. Family members can go to the waiting room, where the receptionists can help keep them up to date on how things are progressing in the operating room. They should provide their cell phone number if they leave to get food or for any other reason.

After the procedure, you’ll go to the recovery room for anywhere from 30 minutes to a couple of hours in order to fully wake up from anesthesia. Your family might need to be patient about that. The amount of time that passes before they can come to be with you can be unpredictable.

How long will I be in the hospital?

If you’re having an outpatient procedure, you’ll go home later that same day. You should ask if you’ll need assistance at home and make sure you have a friend or family member who can stay with you.

If you’re expecting to stay in the hospital for a few days, ask about the milestones you need to achieve before you can go home. With bowel surgery, for example, you must have function before you can leave. Orthopedic surgery might require certain motion capabilities, so ask about the requirements. Be an active participant in your recovery.

What about after-care and recovery? How soon until I’m back to normal? 

Your surgeon should give you a general overview of recovery before your procedure. Before you go home, ask about potential complications or symptoms to watch for. Ask for detailed discharge instructions, and get a phone number to call if you have questions or concerns. If you have a fever or pain that’s getting worse, call and talk to a nurse or your surgeon. They’re happy to answer questions.

Depending on the type of surgery you’ve had, you may not feel like yourself for a few weeks or longer. Ask your doctor how you should expect to feel one week, two weeks and a month after surgery, so you’ll know what’s normal compared to how you’re feeling. Ask about dietary restrictions, too. Your surgeon might have recommendations for diet that will keep you more comfortable as you begin recovery.

Remember that recovery is a process. You’re going to feel better eventually, so be patient and get plenty of rest.

Emily Huang specializes in colon and rectal surgery at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.