The Post-Op Experience
Waking up from general anesthetic after a four-hour operation was a very surreal experience for me . It was the exact opposite of being put under, which had been almost instantaneous; this was very slow and confusing. As my mind started to slip from nothingness into semi-consciousness, I could hear voices, people talking quietly, but the problem was that I wasn't sure if it was real or imagined. I also had a feeling of weightlessness, as if I was floating, but my eyes simply refused to open no matter how hard I tried, then I'd fade out again; I'm not sure how many times that happened but it felt as if it was just minutes. I finally felt like I was waking up from a deep, dreamless sleep but for some reason my eyes wouldn't open. You know the feeling when you’re trying really hard to wake up and you know you're trying but you just can't, that’s what I was experiencing, and it was kind of scary to tell you the truth because I began thinking, what if I couldn't wake up?! Eventually, I did feel myself surfing towards full awareness, remembering that I’d gone in for surgery. I did in fact recognize the voices as that of my two older brothers and my husband, and they were actually laughing quite heartily about something, quietly, but laughing nevertheless! How dare they, I thought?! But for those of you who knew these guys, know they were all clowns and could find humor in any situation. I must have made some type of noise or movement because I heard someone saying as if from a distance, “she's waking up”. And all of a sudden, I was so overwhelmed with this unbelievably intense back pain that I felt I had to sit up to ease the pain, and I guess I tried to, but I felt hands on my shoulders gently pushing me back down and a voice telling me to just relax and breathe slowly (I then realized that I still had on the oxygen mask). I remember thinking why the hell was my back in so much pain when I'd had abdominal surgery! This got me worried so I mumbled to no one in particular “did everything go okay?” and someone answered saying that everything went fine. As I finally won the battle with my eyelids and my eyes slowly opened, everything was blurry and unfocused, exactly like in the movies. Imagine that! As my vision cleared, I saw then that I was right, my two brothers and my husband were there surrounding my bed as well as my mother. I immediately asked where my son was and was told that he was with my sister-in-law. My next question was what time was it, why that mattered I have no idea, it wasn’t like I had somewhere to be, but I was told that it was after 9:00 pm. I could not believe more than twelve hours had gone by when I felt like I'd just shut my eyes! Well, that's half a day of my life I'm never getting back! At this point the nurse came in, gave me a shot of morphine in my IV (there were no self-controlled pain medication pumps back then) and told my family that I'd be out like a light again shortly so they should go home and return the next day. So this was officially the start of my road to recovery.
The Morning After
I was of the opinion that after the surgery the worst of my pain would be over, at least for a while, for how long was anyone’s guess. Boy, was I ever wrong! Of course I fully expected to have pain after a Small Bowel Resection, I’m not an idiot! After all, as it was explained to me by the surgeon (foolish me, for asking for the details!), in a nutshell, the procedure involved making a mid-line incision (cutting open my abdomen), taking out my intestines, cutting out the diseased segments and reattaching the good parts (there were 3 or 4 different locations of varying lengths where they had to do this, about twelve inches in total were removed), kind of like repairing a garden hose with multiple leaks. But I digress; bright and early the morning after my surgery, two very cheerful nurses came in and told me they needed me to sit up and cough. I laughed, thinking they were joking. They weren’t. They proceeded to raise the head of the bed to the most upright position, helped me to lean forward, gave me a pillow to clutch tightly against my extremely tender, bandaged abdomen, and told me to cough as hard as I could. Why, for mercy’s sake, I asked? One of them very patiently explained to me that after being prone for so many hours during surgery and recovery, coughing re-expands the lung to normal capacity and clears fluid build-up, thereby preventing pneumonia which can be deadly. Who knew? In other words, suck up the pain and just do it! Well, that sounded just dandy but a lot easier said than done, taking into consideration the very fresh eight inch incision and more than twenty staples holding my abdomen together. They said they knew it was painful but it had to be done. My first attempt would have embarrassed a newborn, and yet was more painful than I would have thought possible. I decided to bite the bullet and give it my all, which wasn’t anything to crow about but did the job. The pain was indescribable, I felt as if each and every one of those staples had popped out and my incision had opened up. They jokingly said, “see, that wasn’t so bad”, to which I gasped “no, it was a walk in the park, let’s do it again”. They thought that was hysterically funny. Strangely enough, by pure chance or fate if you believe in such things, these two very skilled IBD nurses would become part of my medical care team for many years to come, taking care of me during subsequent hospital visits and surgeries. We would become friends, I just didn’t know it yet.
Food’s No Longer The Enemy
Yet another surprise came later that same day when I was told that I had to get off the bed and walk around the room for a few minutes. Very similar to the coughing exercise, it was quite the experience, one which I wish I could erase from my mind. With their assistance, holding on to an IV pole with tubes dangling everywhere, bent at the waist, legs weak and shaking, trying not to pass out, I soon realized I couldn’t straightened up without searing pain and feeling the staples pulling and stretching, as if getting ready to rip out of my flesh. When I asked why I had to do this so soon, I was told that it was to improve blood flow which speeds up wound healing, also to prevent blood clots and pneumonia. Failure to walk can cause severe gas pains and make you less able to fight off infections. Again, who knew? And last, but not least, as painful as it was, you needed to stretch the wound area into its normal position in order to regain your posture. Who wants to walk around bent at the waist for the rest of one’s life? No me, that’s for damn sure! It was torturous the first few times, but like all things got easier over time. The next big challenge would be eating for the first time after being off food for almost three weeks. On the second day, a nutritionist paid me a visit and explained the game plan to ease me back into the world of solid food. I would first be put on a liquid diet ( the ever popular jello, juices, broth etc.) for a couple of days, then on to very light solid fare ( oatmeal, soft-boiled eggs, mashed potatoes/squash and the like), in other words baby food, for another two days, then finally on a low-residue, high-protein, high-calorie diet. The surgeon came to see me, and told me that the surgery went very well, and if there were no setbacks and I was able to tolerate the food without any problems, I would be able to go home in about a week. He recommended that I get up and walk the halls as often as I could because it would help speed up my recovery; patients who babied themselves and lazed around, took a much longer time to heal and frequently developed complications. My GI also visited me, and more or less told me the same thing. That was motivation enough to have me push myself really hard, parading up and down the hallway like a runway model on a catwalk. I couldn’t wait to get out of there, I’d been a guest of that hospital for almost three long weeks; by the time I got to leave, it would be just shy of a month. For once since I got this heinous illness everything went smoothly, I was healing well, tolerating the food, and most importantly, I was disease-free, which meant being pain-free when I ate. It was time for me to go home, spend quality time with my family, and really start living again while I had the chance. Free at last!