Two weeks ago I heard these words: “You have to have emergency surgery this afternoon.”
The pain medicine had just started working so I could again speak clearly. I said, “What? Today? No, I have to get back to New York City. I have six kids at my house for a pool party and I need to get them back to New York.” The doctor smiled and said, “Nope, you are having surgery today.”
In that moment I realized my plans were out the window. All the negotiating and texting I had done to arrange the perfect weekend party for my son were for naught. I was having surgery in an hour in rural Pennsylvania.
Once my foggy brain registered that I was having surgery I remembered that I had learned what to do to help people before and after surgery. I began to reflect on the last the years of training I had undertaken, learning the delicate art of Somatic Experiencing therapy (to hear a great description of this work check out this podcast). I had sat through over 20 hours of training on how to help clients prepare for and recover from surgery, now I just needed to apply it to myself, but where was my manual???!
I was so overwhelmed by the sudden onslaught of information I could only remember one piece of information from the training: Have a trusted person with you at all times. I had learned that having a loved one with you at a time of stress activates your parasympathetic nervous system and actually protects you from developing acute stress symptoms. I am blessed to have so many loved ones in my life, so I picked up the phone and my fingers started dancing. I texted everyone I could think of to tell them I needed their love and support. I had my dear friend who was in the hospital with me bring my daughter in so I could hold her hand and I made plans for my husband to be relieved from taking care of the kids so he could be with me right away.
One of the wise women I reached out to reminded me of the second key to helping your body through surgery. You need to talk to your body. You might be thinking, “Talk to your what now?” but bear with me. When our bodies undergo surgery they are anesthetized so we do not feel any of the pain of the surgery. But, our nervous system is never ever asleep or offline. Our nervous system is registering what is going on all the time.
When I was in surgery my nervous system was likely asking, “Why are they cutting me open and taking something out?” The nervous system responds as if it is under threat because it does not “know” it is for the best. When we feel threatened we tense up, hold our breath, and freeze. These responses can prolong recovery and lead to complications. I knew my body would have this reaction in surgery if I did not tell it that the surgery was actually going to help me, not hurt me.
So, there I was in rural Pennsylvania with one hand on my heart and the other on my distended stomach and I said, “my lovely body you are in so much pain right now and you are going to feel relief soon. You will be cut into and poked at all to make you heal. You are in no danger. The doctors are here to help. You are safe.” My body felt calm and prepared for what was to come next. I asked all the Operation Room staff to take good care of me and love me all the way through. As I was relaxing on the table I remembered another suggestion from my training: Listen to calming music during surgery. I asked the surgeon to play Taylor Swift because a joy of my life was attending her concert with my daughter last year. The songs light my nervous system up and shoot love and hope through my veins, so I knew it was a good choice.
As I closed my eyes I knew I had done what I needed to do to help my body through the surgery. I had relied on loved ones, asked for what I needed and taken care of my body. This is the recipe for healing.
Have you ever had an experience with surgery that went well or not so well? How do you think some of these steps might have changed your experience?