Undergoing surgery - whether in an emergent or elective setting - is a frightening and stressful prospect for any patient. Furthermore, the conversations that precede a surgery include only the risks and not what to expect after the surgery is over. This can lead to patients being in pain, nauseous, and anxious after a procedure without any understanding of whether those symptoms are a normal or a sign of something wrong. As a surgeon, I work hard to answer all my patients' questions, including the ones they don't know to ask. But for patients, there are a couple simple steps one can take to feel empowered in their own treatment and recovery.
Know your surgeon. Whether the surgery is common (appendix removal) or rare (pancreas removal), "simple" (breast biopsy), "complex" (liver transplant), every patient should feel comfortably asking their surgeon not only about their technique but their experience and education as well. Your surgeon might be busy and intimidating, but they should also respect your desire to be heard and feel comfortable in their care. A good doctor-patient relationship is key to avoid surprises, maximize communication, and deal with complications should they arise.
Know yourself. Unless in the case of an emergency, patients' heart and lung function should be optimized prior to surgery. Good blood pressure and blood sugar control prior to surgery reduces the rate of cardiac events and infections after surgery. Smoking cessation and increased exercise prior to an operation also have positive effects. Finally, patients with obesity are encouraged to lose even a small amount of weight prior to a surgery; this helps with post-operative activity and can reduce the rates of pneumonia and infection.
Prepare for pain and nausea. Due to the procedures themselves and the medications used for anesthesia, pain and nausea are common and to be expected after a surgical procedure. Ask your surgeon and anesthesiologist about how these symptoms will be treated, and do not hesitate to tell someone when those treatments aren't working.
Get ready to move. Pneumonia and blot clots are two of the most feared and dangerous complications after surgery. While patient factors and the severity of surgery contribute to the risk of developing these complications, they share a common preventative measure - activity. Deep breathing with an incentive spirometer and progressive mobility (sitting in a chair --> walking around the room --> walking through the hallway) not only reduce the incidence of these and other complications but expedite the return of patients' appetite and reduce the time of recovery. While patients should never engage in activity that they feel is unsafe after surgery, exerting oneself more and more in the early post-operative period is tremendously beneficial.
Support and education. The internet is full of one-sided arguments and unsupported conclusions, but is empowering and helpful if one knows where to look. While medical journals are often confusing to people not in the medical field, MedScape.com has referenced articles written by medical professionals, and even Wikipedia articles are at least cited and reviewed in some capacity. The internet can also be a good place to find support groups and forums of other patients who have gone before you.