Being a surgical patient can be a bit baffling at times.
There are very strict procedures being followed, but when you're in the middle of the action, the reasons for what's happening may not be immediately clear. In this article we lay out the step-by-step process of a typical surgery so you will know what to expect.
As soon as you walk through the hospital doors, the surgical team is in action. There are forms to fill out and details to get into the computer system, including confirming your insurance coverage, making sure you understand and consent to the surgery, and what your wishes are in a worst-case-scenario. If you have a living will, medical directive, or healthcare proxy, now is when the hospital needs to have a copy of all the legal paperwork. This step usually concludes when you're issued a wrist-band with your name and codes for drug allergies.
Next you'll be taken to a room where you can change from your street clothes into the fashionable hospital gown you've been looking forward to. You'll need to remove any jewelry, and usually place all your belongings in a bag they provide with your name on it.
When you're ready, a few more tests will be done so the team has a record of your stable, pre-operative vital signs such as heartbeat and body temperature. You'll also be asked to verbally confirm your identity and the surgery you're there for, to make sure everyone is on the same page about what's going to happen next.
The final step most patients remember before surgery is getting an IV line, and the first steps of anesthesia beginning, where you're given medicines to help you relax. If you're having general anesthesia you'll be given medicine that makes you completely unconscious for the surgical procedure. Some surgeries can be done with local anesthetic, where you remain awake for the whole operation. The medical team will explain their approach to anesthesia, and you should ask questions if you don't understand what's going to happen.
In the operating room
Depending on what surgery you're having, someone may need to shave or trim your hair if it's where the surgeon needs to be working. The whole area where they'll be making an incision needs to be as clean as possible.
In some cases, a breathing tube may be placed in your throat and a ventilator will help you breathe.
Then the surgeon makes the first incision and blood vessels are clamped off where you're bleeding. This is when the team takes a look inside, either with their own eyes or with special scopes that magnify and clarify organ structures. Here they perform whatever task is necessary, whether it's repairing damage or removing the problem you're having.
If you lose too much blood during the procedure, you may be given a blood transfusion to replenish your blood supply.
When they're finished, the surgical team will close up all the incisions they made, either with sutures or staples, and prepare you for recovery.
Usually, no matter how long a surgery takes, if you've been under general anesthesia, it will seem like no time has passed at all when you wake up in the recovery room. This is where they remove the breathing tube and monitor your return to consciousness. They'll try to manage the post-operative pain here with strong medications. Now is not the time to be the tough guy. Talk frankly to the doctors and nurses about how much pain you're in.
When they're satisfied that you're well on your way to a healthy recovery, you'll be moved to a room where you can rest. In some cases you won't even have to spend a night in the hospital, but how long your stay will be is determined by the status of your health. They'll keep a close eye on your body temperature, blood pressure and oxygen levels.
When you're discharged from the surgical center, there may be post-operative therapy like special medication, physical therapy, or chemotherapy treatments. Make sure you have in writing all the next steps you should take, and the answers to your questions - such as what signs to watch for if something goes wrong with the surgical incision. Infections at the site of the surgery can be a very serious complication.
Finally, be sure to follow up with your doctor as you recover from your surgery. It often takes weeks to get back to normal function, even after a simple surgery, and sometimes you'll need a doctor's visit for checking on your progress or removing sutures or staples.