It has been three weeks since my breast reduction surgery. And, oh – the lessons that I have learned; the wisdom this experience has showered me with … and the pain. Oh. The. Pain.
There were so many parts and pieces and processes of this surgery that I was anxious and worried about. I knew that the time in the hospital – however brief – was going to tough for me. What do you call a phobia of hospitals? Yeah. That’s what I suffer from. And it was definitely not top-of-my-list of all-time fun things to do. But it went smoothly. The nurses were wonderful. The funny, purple, gritted socks were warm. The anesthesia was A-MAY-ZING. The surgery went well (or so we’ve been told). The recovery room was (apparently) surprised with how talkative and opinionated I was – even under anesthetic. My wife was a rock. And then I was brought home and gently ensconced in my recovery sofa-couch. And I slept.
And the recovery lessons began rolling in.
- Research Doesn’t Explain It All: I’m the type of person who likes to have information. The more the better. When I was pregnant, I created a reference binder – a collection of information that I deemed pertinent and important, organized in a manner that I felt would work well for me. I cross-referenced all the information through a variety of sources. I color-coded and multi-tabbed it. I didn’t go quite to that extreme with my breast reduction process, but I did conduct extensive research; I looked at the medical information and literature, I searched out and devoured first and second-hand accounts of the decision process, surgical procedure, healing and after effects. I was damn sure that I was informed. I asked questions and I talked to medical professionals. And as enlightening as all that information was, the reality of the procedure and recovery was more than I could ever understand through my research.
- Prepare And Let Go: I was extremely anxious about being out of commission for several weeks which meant that my wife would have to take on all the daily duties of life, work, school, child rearing, house handling and care giving. I wanted to do what I could to minimize the inevitable stress that she would experience. So, sometimes my dormant anal retentive, OCD personality traits are revived in times of need – and this was one of them. I spent a good weekend creating a tower of pre-prepped, freezer meals that Panda could pull out, defrost and throw in the oven. I spent several hours trying to get a handle on any paperwork that needed signing or attention for Shortstack. I pulled some clothes that I thought I’d be living in for the next couple of weeks together and pulled out our dependable shower chair as I knew that I’d be dependent on Panda for pretty much all of my care for at least a week. All in all, I tried to be a planner. And then I had to go to surgery. I’ll write more about the actual experience later – but safe to say that I had to let go at that point. I was no longer in control – there was not even an illusion of control to hold on to. And, despite my thoughtful prep, Panda and I both realized there were some very basic things that we simply didn’t think about and therefore didn’t get ready for: making sure that the daily life needs were in EASY reach (comb, bandages and gauze, deodorant, mouth wash – all of which is usually stored above shoulder level and reaching “up” or “out” is not recommended and quite challenging post-breast-surgery). For the first two weeks of my recovery, my healing chaos dominated the living room. I was well and truly ensconced on the pull-out sofa bed (truly, one of the most comfortable beds that I have ever fallen asleep on in my life) while my devoted wife slept on the couch next to me every night. There were pillows and bandages, ice packs and empty pillowcases (used to wrap ice packs before applying to my oh-so-delicate skin), stacks of books that I was sure to read during my long and lonely days, a basket filled with my crochet projects in an effort to stave off boredom and the various remotes – always within easy reach of me. Panda made sure that I always had water and snacks that were easy on my already stressed-out body right next to the bottle of my pain killers. Between the two of us, we did what we could to ensure my comfort, minimize family chaos but still allow me to be a part of daily life. But, when it comes down to it, despite all the forethought that you put into it and once the prep is done, you will likely realize that there could be more that should have been done – or could have been done better. Just let it be, fix what you can, live with what you can’t and let go. Your body needs to stop taking care of everything else and start getting better. Let go and fall back into the hands and care of the people who love you best.
- Bodies Are Miraculous And Fragile: Our bodies are astounding. And doctors who modify, change and fix our bodies are pretty darn cool. After receiving anesthesia (which, a good friend compared anesthesia to somewhat allowing a stranger to take us to the brink of death and then bring us back), surgical procedures which often involve massive trauma, and then your body needs to find its way through the process of healing itself. That’s A LOT for your poor, little body to endure. I suppose that we can’t expect to get right back to the business of living without pausing life for a bit to recover. And heal. And so, you need to give your body time for that recovery and healing. But that time also means conservation of energy, minimizing movement, resting and sleeping. And sometimes, as an adult, parent and partner that is accustomed to always being on the go, multi-tasking and NOT being still, recovery can be challenging and taxing. To be honest, many of us will likely fail at it because we do not have any practice or desire to fall back into our patient-in-recovery role.
- Surround Yourself And Surrender To Your Caregivers: Like my other suggestions, this is a challenging proposition. Again, not many of us are good at being cared for. We pride ourselves of conquering our gotta-do list, performing at our jobs and taking care of our loved ones, but we rarely take pride or comfort in being someone that needs to be cared for. Surgery and recovery requires us to give up the ghost. When you physically can’t or shouldn’t do things, you need to let someone else help out. I’ve been blessed with a spouse who cares for me devotedly and is also able to effectively shut down my stubborn bull-headedness and call me on my BS and stupidity. I think, in general – but especially during recovery – it is important to have a caregiver who knows you well enough to candidly tell you how ridiculous or stupid you are being and who can recognize when you’re pushing your limits and potentially hindering your healing. Once you find and enlist that person or people, listen to them. Ah, there is the crux of the conflict. You chose them, they know you, you respect and love them … but you still always know better. Unfortunately, I have to burst that self-assured bubble of all-knowing wisdom for you. Not only do you not know better – you have a skewed sense of what is best for yourself and others during your recovery period. So, lie down, shut up and let your caregivers give you the care that you need in order to heal … so that you can jump back into that self-assured bubble of all-knowing awesomeness.
- Expect Bumps In The Road: It happens. Healing and recovery isn’t always smooth and uneventful – although that is often what patients hope for. So do doctors. But issues and complications may arise. My first two weeks of post-op recovery was smooth sailing. And then something starting looking wrong. Areas of my incision began to look infected. It started to get icky. And painful. After some back-and-forth correspondence with my doctor, I finally secured an appointment to see him in person. He put my mind at ease that the incisions were not infected but the stitches had opened up and what we were seeing was raw flesh and skin. Not exactly what a lay person wants to hear, but I took that information back to my wife – along with the directions for us to continue to keep the areas covered with antibacterial ointment and bandages. She now has the added duty of reassuring and reminding me that we just have to deal with this pothole in the road to healing. Despite all of my research, preparation and attempts to follow recovery directions to the letter, my body threw me a curve ball. Because of the opening incisions, my healing time has been prolonged, my recovery care has become more involved and requires more attention and my return to regular duties (including time in my beloved ocean) has been postponed. And so I just need to suck it up. I could cry and complain (truth be told, I have cried and complained) but it really doesn’t yield much of a result except puffy eyes and a runny nose. When I am able to put my emotions to the side for a few brief minutes while reflecting on this whole process, I can see that all things considered, these post-op complications – as frustrating and distracting as they are – could have been much worse and posed a much more complicated and devastating obstacle to my healing. And so, the lesson gets driven home: do what needs to be done but it’s not the end of the world if there are minor complications or issues while on the mend.
I’m sure that as I move further away from the surgery date, I will be able to reflect and identify other learned lessons. Until then, I take each day as it comes, am thankful for the medical care that I have received, count my blessings for being given such loving caregivers and learn a little bit more about settling into my new body.