12 Do’s (and Don’ts!) Supporting a Friend Through Surgery

or… What I Learned Last Week Through Trial and Error

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I spent a chunk of last week caring for my dear friend Barbara after she had surgery.  I have never had surgery and really had no idea what to expect.  I just knew that this is one of my best friends and I wanted to be there for her and so I volunteered to be her main person for the first few days.  What I know in hindsight is that this is no small task nor should it be taken lightly.  And…it’s not for everyone.  So I’ve compiled a list of what I learned in the hope that it will help others – both caregivers and people about to have surgery – so that they can make the best decisions about who is in their space at this tender time.

DO’s

1-Play to Your Strengths

For example if you don’t have the best bedside manner but you make a really mean chicken soup, volunteer to make meals, but don’t sign up to be the hand holder for your friend or family member when she’s getting prepped for surgery.  If you decide to take on the “job” of caregiver, go for it wholeheartedly and no holds barred. Be on board. If rubbing somebody’s feet makes you squeamish, find someone who is great at giving massage to come sit with the patient while you have a little break.

2 – Take Your Job Seriously

Remember that you are the gatekeeper and that your job, to the best of your ability, is to filter all the personalities, energies and information that the patient is being bombarded with. You are an advocate for the patient.  You’re another set of eyes and ears, don’t be afraid to take notes or even record the doctor when they are speaking.  In my experience, nobody minded when I asked for clarification on certain things or had questions about the aftercare instructions. In general, I felt that the hospital preferred that I was there as a go-between for Barbara.

3 – Be Gentle with the Patient!

Even if you’ve never had surgery before, it’s important to note that the days leading up to surgery, immediately after the operation, and the days shortly after the procedure can be a very tender and vulnerable time for the patient and her family. My friend Barbara kept saying that the veils were thin.  I think she was referring to the fact that all of her defenses were stripped away and this can be a time where fear and powerlessness are magnified.  Be especially gentle and kind with your loved one.  This is definitely where a nurturing and gentle caregiver will be preferred over somebody with very little bedside manner.  Let that person run errands for you or help in other ways.

4 – Have Food in the House

Do have lots of yummy and nourishing snacks available in the house for the patient after surgery. Don’t assume that the patient only wants to eat soup or bland foods. In fact, I knew Barbara was feeling better on day two when she started fantasizing about lasagna!

5 – Rest

Encourage the patient to have many breaks and to rest quietly. It can get a little overwhelming with friends and family calling, texting, and stopping by. No matter how wonderful it is to be reminded how loved she is, my little Energizer Bunny needed quiet time so that she could recharge. One of my best memories was playing my Dragon Drum for Barbara while she napped.  Also in this category, do encourage the patient to take her 3 AM pain pill and go right back to sleep.  You do not want her to get chatty, nip that right in the bud.  You need your sleep too!

6 – Show Some Emotion

Let yourself have feelings. Your friend will appreciate someone else expressing themselves; it’s not just the patient who is feeling an overwhelming amount of emotion. Once all the forms were signed and Barbara came out of the bathroom in her cloth gown and paper cap, s*** got real and I couldn’t help myself, the tears just flowed.  Barbara held my hand and it was a very loving moment.   Also, don’t be afraid to share a laugh – always good medicine (where appropriate, see below.)

DON’Ts

A lot of these will seem like a giant “Duh!” to most of you but I assure you these were either learned the hard way or witnessed.

1 – Don’t Forget to Eat

Don’t eat the patient’s yummy nourishing snacks!  And don’t underestimate how hungry you as the caregiver might get.  It’s important to think ahead if you can and if you have that luxury, stock the refrigerator for you as well.  When well-meaning friends text and ask what they can bring you can also say that the patient is very hungry and wants chocolate and almonds (even if they’re really for you!)

2 – Friends Don’t Let Friends Drive to Surgery

Do not, repeat do not, let the patient drive herself to the hospital on surgery day with you in the passenger seat. The patient has a lot on her mind and will be distracted. When she tries to back up into a very tiny space it will not go well.  Avoid this scenario by insisting upon driving.

3.  Laughter is Good Medicine Except When Patient is Nervous/Crabby

Don’t make too many jokes right before surgery. Usually the patient will not appreciate you making references to your giant pimple on your face and asking the surgeon if they have any medical recommendations for you.   Once again, the patient will not think this is funny.  Neither will the doctor.

4.  Let It Roll

Don’t take anything the patient says prior, during, or after surgery personally.  A lot of emotions can come up.  It’s best to encourage the patient not to make any long-lasting, life-changing decisions in this general window of time.  The patient’s mood could be perceived as erratic – something seemingly harmless like a little elderly man pushing a motorcycle up a hill could drive the patient into a murderous rant.  Best to just soothingly reassure the patient that you hate that motorcyclist too…there, there.  The patient will have almost zero recollection of what they said or asked for. For example when your friend/patient asks you to mince garlic in her lemon water she might actually mean ginger and will look at you like you have sprouted a second head when you ask her if she really wants you to put garlic in her tea.  (Actually, as I write this, it occurs to me that this section could be written for perimenopause too…aaack.)

5.  Don’t Be A Jerk

In her tender time post-surgery, do not give the patient any books regarding her medical condition or tell her stories about people who have died from the same medical condition.  Right?  Also in this category, do not judge any type of procedure or follow-up care the patient decides upon afterwards.  This may take an attitude of trust on your part, but I assure you most people think long and hard and confer with their doctors and their loved ones before they decide on any follow-up treatments and it is OUR job as a supportive community to love our friends and family members through all of their decisions without judgment or opinion unless asked.  And even then, people, use your heads.  Remember…this is a tender time.  Tread lightly!  No bombarding the patient with statistics and medical data.

6.  Don’t Forget What a Sacred Window of Time you are Sharing Together

Take as much opportunity as you possibly can in the surprisingly busy days post surgery to reassure your loved one what an absolute gift it is, and continues to be, to spend time with them.  To hold their hand, to do their laundry, to steam there garlic tea, to warm up their soup, to stroke their hair, to give them a kiss, to cry with them, to laugh with them, to drive them around, and to just be in their presence.  It is a rare gift to share so intimately with another and I am grateful to have had this bonding time with my sweet friend of 26 years.

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Isn’t she cute?

Huge thank you to my family and friends for supporting me in making this trip happen, kids got shuffled, pet/house sitter bent backwards, drum carrier got fedexed so I could bring it with me on the plane, friends held space for me and said healing prayers for Barbara.  I know it’s cliche but it truly takes a village.