Healing post-surgery can seem daunting and as I myself currently navigate the process, my hope is to impart some important lessons I have learned to you.
One month ago I had a bilateral (double) knee replacement surgery. I was told by my surgeon that I had severe arthritis in both knees and they were bone on bone. Although ordinarily I would be considered too old for a bilateral procedure, he felt that my strength and fitness made me an excellent risk. Because of work and other commitments, it took me nearly a year to schedule the surgery, so my condition continued to worsen. Now, thankfully post surgery, I humbly offer the following words of advice for those who are facing a similar challenge involving a long post-surgery recovery.
1. Be very patient with yourself, and those who are doing their best to care for you.
It’s not a perfect world, so some days you may feel neglected and inadequately cared for. Other days you may not feel particularly receptive to or appreciative of the care you’re receiving, no matter how loving it is. Try to be patient with the whole process, which is ongoing and ever-changing. Whether your caregivers are family, friends, or professionals, they have a difficult role to play. Your cheerfulness and good nature make their job a whole lot easier.
2. Be grateful for every kind gesture and express this gratitude to your team.
This team may include physical or occupational therapists, nurses and CNAs, doctors, family, friends, and even the maids and janitors. Their jobs may be different from your painful job of recovery, but often no less challenging. I really got to know some of my support people. One CNA was going through a complicated and painful divorce from an alcoholic spouse. Another worked six days a week and had four children living at home. A certain PT was recovering from her own injury that had left her with PTSD. Another was suffering from the invisible but ongoing effects of a serious concussion. Taking the time, when appropriate, to hear some of their stories touched their hearts and put my own challenges into a larger perspective. As the saying goes, “Be kind to everyone you meet; you don’t know what battles they may be fighting.”
3. Give yourself credit for every bit of hard won effort and for each increment of progress, however small.
For example, in those early days of recovery, making it to the bathroom unassisted, putting on your socks or shoes, walking a little further today than yesterday, trying a new and difficult exercise in physical therapy (that you prefer not to do) – these are big deals! Some days you may feel that you’re accomplishing very little, and that’s okay. Just keep trying your best and celebrating each little victory, maybe even with small rewards for yourself. As I arduously practiced bending my stiff knees, I got excited about every improvement in my range of motion, even just one or two degrees (cheap thrills)!
4. Understand the medicine (pharmaceutical drugs) you’re being given, their purpose, and their potential and actual side effects.
You also want to learn about the recommended safe time frame in which to take them before you risk the possibility of addiction. Sometimes you can get this information before surgery so you are prepared. In other cases you’ll have to do your research on the spot (or have an advocate who goes to bat for you). Your nurse or doctor should be good sources of information, but so can online research. I did mine on my iPhone in my rehab center bed!
I also talked to various staff who had had significant experiences with certain drugs. That was extremely helpful. You can turn down a certain drug if you have grave concerns about it. There are usually other options.
5. Have at least one really inspiring book to read to take your mind off your discomfort and to broaden your perspectives.
This may well be a time when your normal world seems atrophied and your physical limitations are discouraging and even overwhelming. You can also try Audiobooks if you don’t have the energy to read. A few of my favorite reads are the following novels: “Lisette’s List” by Susan Vreeland, “The Language of Baklava” by Diana Abu Jaber, “Prodigal Summer” by Barbara Kingsolver, and “The Little Paris Bookshop” by Nina George. I also love the profound but short thought pieces in the book “Consolations” by poet and teacher David Whyte. Get your imagination moving – it will help the rest of you!
6. Preselect some of your favorite music to listen to during those long sleepless nights.
Utilize your favorite playlists or radio station to bring you comfort and welcomed distraction. I have an inexpensive CD player that I can control from my bed. Soulful, soothing music made all the difference when I was so exhausted I could scream. And yet, the pain was overcoming my meds keeping me awake most of the night. Sometimes the music was the only thing that could finally lull me to sleep. You might also prefer something more energizing for those difficult mornings when you can barely get out of bed to start what looks like another miserable day. The right music can definitely kick-start your return to a good or peaceful mood.
7. Once you’re up and able to walk safely (accompanied, if necessary), try to get outside every day.
Use a walker, cane, wheelchair, or walking sticks, and friends as needed. I live in the country and thus have the luxury of walking out in nature, for example, in the flatter sections of our large garden or along our wooded driveway. If it’s cold or wet, I bundle up, but I try to take one longer and two shorter walks each day. Although it’s easy to keep your eyes focused on your feet, try to look around and really appreciate the nature around you – the unique bark of a tree, a plant coming into bloom, birdsong, the beauty of a foggy day. If you are in the city, notice new details, take your time, and enjoy the benefits of the sun. Be safe, be aware, breathe deeply and allow yourself to be revitalized!
8. Keep in close touch with your most supportive friends and family members during your rehabilitation.
Even if they are not close enough to visit you, their support matters, and most likely they will want to be kept up to date with your healing journey. Once you’re back home, you may have less visitors than at the hospital or rehab center. If you’re beginning to feel forgotten, reach out! I have cultivated some special friends who either
a) take me to medical appointment
b) do errands with/for me,
c) bring me food, or
d) hang out with me at home for a few hours.
One friend conceived of the idea of calling me every evening to see how my day had gone. I was also able to hear about her day, one of my only tethers to the outside world. This nightly call has meant a lot to both of us, and has deepened an already deep friendship.
9. Make your healing environment comfortable and attractive.
Surround yourself with beauty and things that inspire you – plants, flowers, art, the cards of well-wishers, cozy lap blankets and pillows, etc.
I have a dear friend who, along with my daughter, felt strongly about decorating my room at the rehab center for Christmas. They set up colored lights, poinsettias, holly, a garland of cards, a miniature Christmas tree, and bows everywhere! I even created a small altar with family photos, electric candles, and flowers. The staff told me that I had the most inviting room in the whole facility. They enjoyed visiting me because of the “good vibes”. It made me happy too. And when I left, I passed some of the decorations on to other patients.
Once back home, a good recliner can be worth its weight in gold! And how about renting or borrowing an electric ice machine to help keep down the inflammation during those early weeks of healing? It sure beats the bags of peas they tell you to keep on hand in your freezer! And I pulled out my most beautiful lap blanket and a favorite wool shawl to keep me cozy during my healing.
10. Know when to begin phasing out your medications – especially if you’re experiencing lots of side effects or are worried about possible addiction issues.
Dizziness, lethargy, depression, loss of appetite, constipation, insomnia, lack of pain relief in spite of the promises, foggy thinking, poor motivation, inability to concentrate – all these symptoms crept up on me over time. With your doctor’s or practitioners advice, you may be able to gradually decrease and then eliminate certain meds, or take a couple days off to see if a certain med is really helping you. I can’t believe how much better I felt and progressed on the other side of the meds – energized, optimistic, and motivated for the first time in days!
Again, talk this over with your doctor or nurse practitioner. Some medications may be essential, and others may indeed be expendable.
11. When appropriate, don’t be afraid to try some natural remedies and herbs to augment your healing.
A good herbal tincture, healing salve, natural pain spray, or an invigorating or soothing tea may make a significant contribution to your recovery. Do your research before your surgery if possible. In some cases, such herbal remedies could be taken alongside your regular meds (but at a different time). In other cases, you may have to wait until you are off certain pharmaceuticals. Check with your doctor, nurse practitioner, or naturopath to better understand the large picture and any possible drug interactions.
12. Do your best to stay positive.
Healing from any significant surgery or injury is seldom easy. You may have occasional good days, with hard days in between. Lack of sleep may sap some of the energy you know you need to heal. Being thrust out of your normal independence, preferred lifestyle, and activities may feel like sensory deprivation! And most likely, even a longtime spiritual practice, such as meditation, yoga, or tai chi, becomes more difficult if not impossible, when you’re dealing with issues of pain, immobility, or fatigue.
A Flower Essence is something I like to pair with my other methods of wellness as I feel it helps me with emotional balance. This is my preferred essence for my process.
In spite of all your challenges, cultivating a positive attitude can help you to embrace this time as a healing retreat from our crazy, chaotic world and its incessant demands. Try to enjoy your “time off”, and use it for your highest good and deepest healing.
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