Learning that your child needs surgery is a pretty scary thing to hear. Minor or not, to me, every surgery done on a child is major. I was thinking about the time my daughter Katelyn had to have her tonsils and adenoids out and remembered the things that I did to make it somewhat easier and thought, well, why not share it? I am not claiming to be a professional on the subject and some of the things that worked for me may not work for all, but as parents, we could all use a little advice.
When Katelyn was 15 months old she had to have tubes put in her ears. Then when she was 3 ½, we had to deal with the tonsillectomy and adenoidectomy. I was fairly comfortable with the fact that both of these surgeries would improve things for her in the long run, it was getting us through the short term I was nervous about.
The first thing I remember doing was asking a lot of questions. I wanted to know what would be done, how it was to be done, and what the risks were. Our doctor was very good about keeping us calm and I made sure the doctor I chose for this was not only skilled in what he did, but was experienced with pediatrics. I have found that pediatric specialists have a different demeanor, skill set and bedside manner altogether, not just for the child, but the parents too and that is worth more than anything to me. I also made sure that the hospital it was to be done in was experienced with children. Most hospitals are but it is always good to at least check and see how many times they have had to deal with pediatric patients. Trust me, it makes a world of difference.
Preparing a child for surgery varies on the age. We spent more time preparing Katelyn when she was 3 ½ than when she was 15 months. I even read her books about it. In the book, A Visit to the Sesame Street Hospital by Deborah Hautzig, Grover has a tonsillectomy. In, Franklin Goes to the Hospital by Paulette Bourgeois, Franklin gets a crack in his shell and needs to have surgery to fix it. Both of these were fun, child-friendly books that really helped us in discussing what was to happen and help in answering questions as we prepared for the day. We also watched Curious George Goes to the Hospital. What enjoyment he can bring about a sometimes-scary subject! We didn’t overdo it though; we read these as well as regular books so as not to overwhelm her. It is all about balance.
Another preparation parents may look into if the child is having more extensive surgery or even if (s)he isn’t, is a visit to the hospital and the pediatric floor. This is helpful if your child is going to have to stay in the hospital after the surgery. To see the floor and the rooms and the child-friendly halls might help in seeing that the hospital isn’t such a scary place after all. I think the biggest thing to get across to a child is that the hospital is a place to help not hurt. Children’s fears are natural and should never be dismissed as silly or unfounded. I have heard people say, “Oh it's no big deal, you’ll be fine!” But when you are a young child and have no idea what you are in store for, it is a big deal, so be reassuring instead of dismissing of that child’s feelings.
On the day of surgery, I actually had Katelyn wear her new pajamas. We went out together and bought a new pair just for surgery day. They were her “extra special hospital” pajamas. She was very happy to put them on to show she was going in for a big girl thing at the hospital. Anything you can do to make your child feel like royalty on that day is worth it in my book! We also made sure to bring her favorite teddy bear and her blanket. Comfort items always help! One of the hardest things to do is have the child not eat anything beforehand. Most pediatric surgeries are scheduled in the morning so to be fair; I didn’t eat breakfast (at least in front of her!). I wanted her to feel like we were in this together- and we were!
Another thing I remember being able to do at the time of surgery was actually walk her into the operating room. I had to wear scrubs, and protective coverings but it was worth it. I was able to walk her into the operating room, put her down on the table and hold her hand until she was out. It was comforting for both her and I because the O.R. is a scary place and having mommy or daddy there is a big help. Plus, I looked at it this way: I was the last person she saw before she was put out for the procedure. Again, it’s all about comfort.
When the time comes for the recovery room, the nurses warned us that she would be groggy, cranky and restless all at the same time. Our job was to be calm and reassuring that she did it and it's all over. The nurses weren’t kidding; she was cranky, confused, tired and restless. Inside my heart was breaking seeing her like this, but I knew it was all temporary and my job was to be strong for her. I made sure that she was covered in her Elmo blankie and had her Mr. Bear with her and all would be OK. Do not rush the recovery process with your child. Just because they say “Oh, she will be feeling less groggy in 45 minutes” doesn’t mean that you’ll be packing her up and out the door at that time. Each child is different and we need to keep that in mind. We waited until she was ready, and you know your child better than anyone in that hospital. We also made sure to include her sister Meghan. Meghan was there with her and held her hand and even asked the nurses for Popsicles for her sister. They gave both girls grape ones and they had them together, which brought a bit of normalcy to an otherwise abnormal setting.
When she was ready (and we were comfortable to leave) we asked lots of questions. Do not think anything is stupid to ask about This is your child and (s)he just had surgery, no question is a dumb one no matter how small the surgery was. Make sure all of the instructions are clear, make sure you have spoken to the doctor about what to expect, make sure you understand what might be normal and what isn’t. This is where comfort and understanding is key for the parent. Most hospitals upon leaving have a toy cart in which the patient can choose a special treat from for being a big girl/boy. If this is not the case, have a small present handy just to keep with the feeling that today is thier special day and what they just went through was a big deal. Keep the ride home a calm one. Rest is the best way and the quickest way to heal.
I think one of the hardest things to do is to keep a child from doing what (s)he loves to do. A friend of mine, Christine, just had her son go through surgery and was told he could not ride his bike or be very active for two weeks. Her biggest concern was "how do I tell him he cannot ride his bike?” I told her about an idea that I did and it seemed to work. I told her if he couldn’t ride his bike for two weeks then make a chart. Each day he makes it, let him put a sticker on the chart to see how much longer until he can get back to riding that bike again. Children are very concrete and need to see something tangible when it comes to time. This was a great way for him to see how much longer and feel rewarded for making it through another day of healing. By the end of the two weeks, he was so excited! The sticker chart was a success and bike riding is back on his list of things to do.
Surgery is never fun for anyone. Whether it is day surgery or a more extensive procedure, it is a big deal. When it comes to our children it is almost gargantuan in the list of worries we parents have. But, by communicating, making your child a part of the process before and after, and staying informed, the experience can be positive. Then maybe we can get the lollipop and sticker for being brave, too.
Franklin Goes to the Hospital by Paulette Bourgeois
A Visit to the Sesame Street Hospital by Deborah Hautzig
Curious George goes to the hospital by Margret and H.A. Rey