Safety and Wellness

What's It Like to Have Surgery?

Even if you're a fan of TV hospital dramas, these shows might also make you nervous about what happens in an operating room. Millions of teens are wheeled into operating rooms (ORs) each year, so it can help to find out what to expect before you get to the hospital.

Depending on the type of surgery you need, you may have inpatient surgery or outpatient surgery (also called ambulatory surgery). Inpatient surgery usually requires that you stay in the hospital for a day or more so the doctors and nurses can monitor your recovery carefully. If you have outpatient surgery, you will go home the same day. This type of surgery may be performed in a hospital or an outpatient surgery clinic and you can go home when the doctor decides you're ready.

What to Expect

If your surgery is not an emergency, it will be planned in advance. You will make a visit to the hospital or outpatient surgery location beforehand. Examples of emergency surgery include a broken elbow and appendicitis. When urgent surgery is required, you will go to the operating room after being diagnosed with a surgical problem.

When you know about your surgery ahead of time, you will arrive at the hospital and a nurse or other hospital employee will begin the pre-surgical process. He or she will begin by asking questions about your medical history, including any allergies you might have and any symptoms or pain you may be having. Girls may be asked if there is any chance of being pregnant. Nurses will also take your vital signs like your heart rate, temperature, and blood pressure.

Soon after you arrive, you'll be given an identification bracelet — a plastic tape with your name and birthdate on it — to wear around your wrist. You'll also be asked about the time you last ate or drank anything. This might seem strange, but it's actually very important to your safety. Having food or liquids in your stomach can lead to vomiting during or after the surgery and cause harmful complications.

You might need to have other tests, like X-rays and blood tests, before your surgery begins.

Before Surgery

Before your operation takes place, you and your family will have a chance to meet with the anesthesiologist — the doctor or certified registered nurse anesthetist (CRNA) who specializes in giving anesthetics, the medications that will help you fall asleep or numb an area of your body so you don't feel the surgery. The anesthesiology staff will have your medical information so you can be given the amount of anesthetic you need for your age, height, and weight.

There are several types of anesthesia. General anesthesia causes you to become completely unconscious during the operation. If you're having general anesthesia, the anesthesiologist or CRNA will be present during the entire operation to monitor your condition and ensure you constantly receive the right doses of medications.

If surgery is done under local anesthesia, you'll be given an anesthetic that numbs only the area of your body to be operated on. You also might be given a medication that makes you drowsy during the procedure.

Before your operation, the nurse or doctor will clean (and shave, if necessary) the area of your body that will be operated on. You'll be asked to take off any jewelry, including barrettes and hair ties, and you'll need to take out contact lenses if you wear them. You'll be given a hospital gown to wear in the operating room.

A nurse will put an IV (intravenous) line in your arm and attach it to thin plastic tubing that is connected to a soft bag of fluid. This line will probably be used to give you anesthetic (if you're having general anesthesia) or provide you with fluids or medicine that may be needed during the operation.

As you're wheeled into a hospital operating room, you may notice that the nurses and doctors are wearing face masks and plastic eyeglasses, as well as paper caps, gowns, and booties over their shoes. Patients are vulnerable to infection during an operation, so this protective gear lowers the chance of infection while you're in the operating room.

The nurse or technician will then place monitoring equipment, such as sticker-like patches on your skin to measure your heart rate, and an inflatable cuff on your arm to check blood pressure at regular intervals.

Sometimes medical and nursing students observe surgeries, so don't be surprised if doctors and nurses aren't the only people in the room.

After Surgery

After your surgery is over, you'll be taken to the recovery room, where nurses will monitor your condition very closely for a few hours. Sometimes this room is also called the post-op (postoperative) room or PACU (post-anesthesia care unit). Your parent may be able to visit you here.

Every person has a different surgical experience, but if you've had general anesthesia, it's common to feel groggy, confused, chilly, nauseated, or even sad when you wake up. When the surgery has been completed, the surgeon will let you and your parents know how the procedure went and answer any questions you have.

Once your anesthesia has worn off and you're fully awake, you'll be taken to a regular hospital room if you're staying overnight. If you're having an outpatient procedure, you'll be monitored by nurses in another room until you're able to go home.

If you feel pain after the surgery, the doctors and nurses will make sure you have pain relievers to keep you more comfortable. You may also need to take other medications, such as antibiotics to prevent infection.

Taking the Worry Out of Your Surgery

The thought of having surgery can be scary. If you're worried, try these tips to help feel more at ease:

  • Ask questions ahead of time. Your surgeon, anesthesiologist, and nurses will be able to answer your questions about the surgery, how you'll feel afterward, how long it will take to return to your normal activities, what type of scarring you might have, etc. Don't feel embarrassed about asking lots of questions — the more informed you are, the more comfortable you'll feel about having surgery.
  • Be sure you're clear on instructions — and ask if you're not. Your doctor or a nurse will give you instructions on what to do before the surgery (called preoperative instructions) and what you can and can't do afterward (postoperative instructions). For example, your doctor may tell you to stop taking certain medications for a set period of time before surgery. (If you know about your surgery ahead of time, you should let your doctor know well in advance if you are taking any herbal or other non-prescription medications such as ibuprofen as your medical team might instruct you to stop taking them.) And follow your doctor's orders regarding eating before surgery. After surgery, your exercise and activities might be restricted for a while.
  • Practice healthy habits. Smoking is never a good idea, but it's especially bad news after surgery when your body is trying to recover. Ditch the cigarettes, get plenty of rest, and eat nutritious foods.
  • Try relaxation techniques. If you're nervous or anxious, taking a few slow, deep breaths or focusing on an object in the room can help you to tune out stressful thoughts and cope with your anxiety. Think of your favorite place and what you like to do there.
  • Plan ahead. If you have to miss school because of surgery, talk to your teachers ahead of time and arrange to make up any tests or assignments. Get a friend you trust to take notes for you and drop off homework assignments. By planning ahead, you won't have to spend your recovery time stressing about your grades.
  • Tell a few people. If you don't feel like sharing the details of your operation, you don't have to — but telling some friends that you'll be out of school for a few days might ensure you'll have some visitors! Your friends might even have some surgery stories of their own to share.
  • Pack a few favorites. After you're out of the recovery room, you might want the comfort that some favorite CDs, iTunes, books, magazines, or a journal can bring, so make sure that when you're packing your hospital bag, you throw in a few goodies.

Reviewed by: Steven Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: February 2014



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Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses and treatment, consult your doctor.

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