RECOVERY – Lessons that I Learned the Hard Way
Having gotten Rheumatoid Arthritis at the age of 9, years before there were effective treatments, little did I know the number of surgeries and procedures that awaited me later to keep me on my feet and living my life.
I have had easily over 10 surgeries including a kidney transplant (most importantly, a major thank you to my donor to whom, I will always be grateful). It has taken me a long time to learn what matters to a successful recovery.
I did not make it easy on myself. The surgery always took a back seat. I was entirely focused on getting back to what I was doing before the need for surgery rudely interrupted, things like my career as an exec in financial services, my active role in non-profits, my next vacation. All of it, whatever it was, essential or not, was so much more important than that surgery. My goal was simple. Get the surgery over with and get back at it.
Let me paint a picture for you through a few simple examples. My MO was pretty basic:
My pre-op appointment
I would make a mad rush to my appointment, scheduled early in the morning to make certain that I could get in and out with limited wait. Okay, I would listen to my doctor attentively as he explained my surgery and ask lots of questions. I did want to understand my surgery and exactly what I was consenting to. But, then I would rush into work and put it out of my mind.
The night before
I would work until the last minute to get my desk cleared, and tell myself, don’t worry, I will have plenty of time to sleep under the anesthetic and after surgery too. Logical, right?
Waking up from surgery, I would already be planning my exit. It is easy to agree that hospital food is lousy and being nauseous as well from the anesthesia, eating while at the hospital was pushed to the bottom of the list.
No surprise here, I would arrive home to my apartment with an empty fridge and start scheduling work calls. If I am going to be really honest, I had already been sneaking those in whenever I could without disturbing the fellow patient in the bed next to me. I scheduled my PT and was relieved that the “acute” phase of healing was behind me. Life could return to “my normal.”
And, I do not think that I am alone in this. I have plenty of company – and my bet, some of you may have already recognized yourself.
To state the obvious, this approach both physically and emotionally wiped me out and actually prolonged my recovery time. It took a really rough time where I was super sick, shaken to my core, for me to recognize once and for all that I have an essential part to play in my recovery.
Some simple things I have learned:
Getting it right before your surgery actually matters
That time before surgery, could be as long as a month, is critical. It is in that time that you can equip your body to handle the surgery. What does “handle” mean? It involves all aspects including exercise, arriving for surgery well rested and focused, being well hydrated and, also importantly, being well nourished. Take nutrition for example, it has been clinically proven that an undernourished or malnourished patient will not heal as effectively as a well-nourished patient. In anticipation of a surgery, nutrition has to become a priority.
Actually, what you eat before, during and after matters – proper nutrition can make a difference
This lesson came really late for me. After my kidney transplant due to some complications I simply could not recover my strength or energy. A friend (thank you, Ken) sat down with me and made me go through each bite I eat every day. A meal plan overhaul later, my daily food consumption had changed dramatically and focused specifically on recovery.
Here is some of the basic stuff that he drilled into my head. During trauma each of our body’s nutritional needs significantly increase. Our bodies enter a higher metabolic state requiring more energy. Ignoring that simply prolongs recovery leading to more muscle atrophy, more weakness, more fatigue. Exactly what had happened to me. This has been proven over and over again in clinical studies. Equally, increasingly studies are showing that it is not only about overall nutrition but also focusing on the nutritional needs arising out of a particular kind of surgery. Looking back, I hate to think what I had put my body through those prior surgeries and what an uphill battle I fought.
Finally, we all focus on the acute phase of recovery, but recovery is so much more than just that
Recovery is not the same thing as being discharged from the hospital or completing your post-op appointment. Acute recovery focuses on starting to get up and move, working with a PT if necessary, keeping your site incision clean and dry following your doctor’s protocol, etc. We all try to be perfect patients during this time, trying to get it right, including me. Often though, we do not necessarily make it our top priority. Are we really getting enough rest? Staying hydrated? Eating in a healthy manner? Let’s assume yes.
After that though, there is in fact a “long tail” to recovery. Just because your stitches have dissolved and the pain is starting to go away does not mean that your body has stopped healing. One doctor explained it simply to me, take soft tissue for example, less than 50% of recovery occurs during the acute phase, and the rest of recovery, the “tail,” can take weeks AND months. Your body is still hard at work during this time. It will require many of the same exact things as the acute phase – rehab, rest, hydration, nutrition, patience. Focus.
In the end, this is a long way to say that no doubt, while your surgeon may be absolutely critical, I have learned that each one of us has a huge role to play in ensuring that our surgery is a success. And, how we approach our recovery can make an important long term difference to the outcome.
Written by Whitney Stevens, MEND’s Co-Founder Senior Strategist