I had waited an entire year and a half for this: surgery week. My doctor had run out of imaging tests that he could order, so all that was left to do was an exploratory laparoscopic surgery. This was HUGE, since laparoscopic surgery is less invasive and more precise, leading to less pain and faster healing. Plus, LITTLE SCARS! In my last appointment with my surgeon, we discussed the topic briefly: he would go in and look around, and if any of my colon needed to be removed, he’d pull it through a larger incision in my belly button. Depending on what he “found” in there, I would either go home that day or be admitted to the hospital.
Because I didn’t know if my doctor would find any, let alone TWO defects in my colon, I didn’t have an open and informed discussion about what to expect post-colectomy. Not that I didn’t survive to figure it out, it’s just that I would have been a lot more comfortable had I been prepared with this information. From the bowel preparation to the post-surgical scars, here’s a list of what I wish I had known before I got my laparoscopic (partial colectomy) surgery.
Don’t Shave Your Legs the Day Before Unless You Like Torturing Yourself
I made the mistake of shaving my legs the day before surgery. My mindset? If I am in the hospital for a few days, I don’t want to look like a dang Yeti in my gown. What I didn’t take into consideration was the Hibiclens Antiseptic soap. This soap sucks all of the moisture and oil out of your skin, to help make it as sterile as possible before they slice. The night before surgery, they ask you to put the soap all over your body and let is set in for 5 minutes before rinsing it off. Then, they ask you to do it once more in the morning before you arrive. Now after using it twice, there’s absolutely NO moisture left on your skin for any bacteria to fester in… BUT THEN, just to make sureeee, they hand you MORE Hibiclens wipes to use TWICE OVER before you get into your surgery gown.
By the time I finished using the wipes, my skin started to itch. Also, after wiping myself down, I was cold and wet. When I put on the surgery gown, I was surprised that it was lined with plastic. To heat me up, they hooked some air tubes up to the gown and pumped in hot air. The combination of the Hibiclens and hot air on my day-old shaved legs was the WORST sensation to be feeling pre-surgery. It felt like my legs were covered with fire ants! No amount of scratching would help! The nurses tried to re-wipe my legs with wet rags in attempt to relieve the burning Hibiclens, but then my legs were still wet when they put the leg squeezers on. It was a miserable experience. Do yourself a favor – skip the vanity and go with comfort. DON’T SHAVE YOUR LEGS less than 2 days before surgery!
OH SH*T – What to Do When You Can’t Complete Your Bowel Preparation (Colorectal Surgery Only?)
This is definitely a conversation that I wish I had with my surgeon beforehand.
The day before a colorectal surgery, you have to complete an invasive colon cleanse. My surgeon prescribed Clenpiq, which involved two small bottles of solution that I had to take with a lot of water. Simple enough, right? WRONG. I have a sensitive stomach, always have. IN between the Clenpiq bottles, I had to take a very strong, double dose of an antibiotic. On an empty stomach. I lasted about 40 minutes before the vomiting started. A little past the one hour break, I went back in for the second bottle of Clenpiq, and I vomited all of that up. So there I was, around 10 PM, having vomited up my antibiotic and my second half of the colon cleanse. Plus, I was dehydrated because I couldn’t keep any water down.
What made everything worse was that I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know if I should page the doctor or call into a special service – I had absolutely no contingency plan. I was stressed and couldn’t sleep, thinking that my surgery might get cancelled because of this. My surgery didn’t get cancelled – but unfortunately, I did end up with a bad post-surgical infection (which maybe possibly could have been prevented if I had been able to complete the bowel prep!) If you’re like me and have a sensitive stomach, ask the doctor what to do if you’re unable to complete the bowel preparation. Your doctor might have specific tips or tricks to get through it without vomiting or wasting the prep, which will help protect you from a possible infection later.
You’re Not Uma Thurman – Ask for the Damn Pain Medicine
Now this is something that I am still having a difficult time with. Having friends that have experienced an addiction to narcotics, I am super afraid of developing an addiction to pain meds. So, when I was in the hospital after my surgery, I tried to tough it out. I only asked for pain medicine when the pain was really bad. Unfortunately when you do this, it causes a lot of extra stress on your entire body. When you’re in the hospital recovering from surgery, make sure to ask for pain medicine when you start to feel pain. Otherwise, it can actually weaken your body from the stress and take longer for you to heal. As for after surgery, make sure you record your daily pain levels and what makes them worse (diet, exercise, etc.) and be very honest with your doctor about your pain level throughout your immediate recovery.
The Carbon-Dioxide Bubble Will Have You Begging to Burp (or Fart)
When a surgeon does a laparoscopic surgery, they inflate your abdomen like a balloon so they can get a good look in there. To do this, they use carbon monoxide gas (don’t worry, it’s perfectly safe!) When they are finished, they let out as much of this gas as they can, but some of it stays trapped inside. For me, I woke up feeling like I had a whoopie cushion under my rib cage. It hurt to breathe! It was also painful to twist or contract my abdomen, like when I would try to get out of bed, adjust my position, or even lift up my gown to go to the bathroom. For the first two days, as the sedation wore off, the carbon dioxide bubble caused me more pain than the actual incisions. I had no idea this was even a thing until I was going through it!
Eventually, it will absorb into your body and exit – either by your breath, by a burp, or (eek!) by a fart. More than likely, because of gravity and the way they have you positioned in the bed, it’ll come out of your mouth. In order for that to happen faster though, you’ve got to get up and move around. Walking around will help you burp out the carbon dioxide and bring you much needed relief, faster.
Walk, Walk, Walk
Besides helping you burp up that gas bubble, walking will help alleviate a lot of your pain as well as jumpstart the healing process. It’s also super important for the prevention of deep vein thrombosis – or blood clots that occur (typically in the legs) from being too sedentary after a surgery. Even though it hurts, it’s important to make small laps around the hospital. As family and friends to take time slots and walk you around the hospital floor. Ask them to come in with current events or stories to distract you while you walk. Maybe even try a game of “I Spy” in the halls! Whatever it takes, walk. Then walk some more. Walking will also signal to your colon that you are awake and moving, which will help trigger peristalsis and get your guts working like they’re supposed to.
Eff Your Sleep, You’re On Their Schedule
One major misconception about the hospital is that you’ll get plenty of rest. What they don’t tell you is that there is a nurse that comes in every two hours to check your blood pressure, temperature, and pulse. Also, there are other nurses that are coming in to monitor your pain levels and distribute your meds. Then, more people come in to empty your trash and mop the room. Others come in to take your food order, and then they come in to deliver food and once more to pick up your tray when you’re finished. Your doctors start making their rounds at about 6 AM, and the nursing staff comes in to inform you when they’re changing shifts. Therefore, you’re never asleep for more than two hours. When you’re tired, go ahead and get some shut eye. Staying on a daytime-nighttime schedule will do you no good in there.
“You Can Eat Whatever” Um, THEY’RE LYING
I get it, they’re fixing your colon. Eventually, the goal is that you will be able to eat anything you want – but more than likely, you’ll need to stay away from a few things in the beginning. Think about if you tightly sewed two pieces of meat together. Even if you did a good job, that tissue around the stitches is going to be sensitive as it heals. Also, if parts of your colon were removed, the new sections may need to relearn their new role in the digestion game. With that being said, I will point out some major post-colon-surgery no-nos: no small seeds (ie. berries), no marinara/red spaghetti sauce (for me, it was even a zero-tomato policy), no raw veggies or fruits/veggies with skins (ie peppers, unpeeled apples), no fibrous foods like celery and corn, no cruciferous veggies like broccoli/cauliflower/cabbage, no meat with a lot of connective tissue like chewy red meat or pork, and for some people, no dairy products (if it makes you toot, give it the boot!) Basically, stay away from anything that normal bodies can’t digest, anything that would get caught, and anything that will give you gas. Still want your red meat? Try it ground, like in a meatloaf or meatball. And trust me, after colon surgery, GAS IS NO JOKE. AVOID IT AT ALL COSTS.
Your Scars Won’t Be Bad – But Your Belly Button Might Be a Touch Askew
Laparoscopic surgery involves a minimum of two incisions: one on top for the camera, and one below for the surgical instruments. If they remove anything, it might be through the belly button. Do not panic. The scars from laparoscopic surgery are very small! I was so scared because I saw large dressings, and then the tape on top of my stitches looked bigger than I expected. Until the stitches tape came off of my navel, I thought I might have two belly buttons! Luckily, my surgeon did a very careful job of stitching me up. But if you’re worried about the scars, don’t be! There are scar treatments and steps you can take to minimize the color and prevent the keloid scars that you dread. More about that in a later article J!
To wrap it up (no surgery pun intended,) it’s good to have a comprehensive discussion with your doctor about what to expect before going into any surgery. In addition, many of your friends or family may have helpful insight into your future hospital stay. I find that the more I know, the more mentally prepared I am to handle the hard parts. I hope you know that you’re not alone, and that many people go through what you’re about to go through, every day. Take comfort in knowing that you’re part of the healing community. A survivor. And get ready to rock those scars with pride.
*Disclaimer: I am not a licensed medical professional. All information in this post is based on research and personal experience, and is intended to support and encourage fellow friends in healing ONLY.