By Astrid Van Dan Broek
Tonya Surman still gets choked up when talking about her son heading into surgery at nine months of age to correct his strabismus (cross-eyed) condition. “To put him under general anesthetic and hand him over to people I didn’t know was one of the most terrifying experiences as a mother,” she says today of her son Tristan’s first surgery. “It was just awful.”
As many parents know (more than 10,500 surgeries were performed at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children last year alone), sending your child in for an operation is a heart-wrenching and nerve-wracking experience. If your toddler is facing elective surgery, here’s what you need to know.
BEFORE THE HOSPITAL
Winnipeg pediatrician Dr. Janet Grabowski says knowledge is power when it comes to controlling your emotions around your child’s surgery. “You’ll feel better if you have all your questions answered ahead of time,” she says. So write out your questions beforehand and run through them with the surgeon and anesthesiologist during the pre-operation appointments.
If you have a last-minute question, you can ask it at your child’s pre-operative check-up with her pediatrician. These appointments are mandatory before all surgeries to make sure the child isn’t suffering from a respiratory illness or any other ailment that would put her at risk during the procedure. “Usually it’s done two or three weeks before the surgery to make sure they’re ready,” says Dr. Grabowski.
And what about preparing your toddler — how do you do it? Dr. Michael Giacomantonio, head of pediatric general/thoracic surgery at Halifax’s IWK Health Centre, says you can’t really intellectually prepare a small child for surgery. That said, if you think it would help, ask if your hospital offers a pre-operative hospital tour for children, where your toddler can get familiar with the strange noises and medical equipment he will hear and see that day.
THE DAY OF
Depending on the procedure, your doctor will give you specific instructions that must be followed prior to surgery. The most important of these is making sure your toddler follows eating and drinking guidelines before the operation. As Dr. Giacomantonio explains, anesthesia causes the loss of reflexes including the ability to cough, which is how we prevent food from getting into our lungs. “It’s a threat to the respiratory system for a person under anesthetic to have anything in his stomach,” he says.
However, you can distract your child by having him pack a bag with toys as well as a comforting blankie or stuffed animal to take with him. When you check in at the hospital, your child will be changed into a gown and likely sent to a child-friendly waiting room packed with toys and books to sidetrack him even further.
This is also the time for you to pull out your best poker face, advises Dr. Giacomantonio. “An anxious parent unwillingly shares that with the child and creates anxiety for him around the procedure,” he says. “And if you’re properly informed, you’re likely to be calmer.”
Before the surgery, ask when, and who, can go into the recovery room post-surgery. Often hospitals only let one parent go in right after the child has come out of the anesthetic. For Surman, that was a comforting experience. “When he came out of the anesthetic, he didn’t have to wake up to anybody but me,” she says.
Your pre-surgical consult with the surgeon will also outline what kind of observation is involved after the operation — from a few hours to overnight. And take heart in knowing kids are blessed with amazing recuperative abilities. “Kids recover very well and quickly, especially compared to adults,” says Dr. Grabowski.
While her son’s surgery gave Surman indelible memories, she believes Tristan doesn’t remember a thing about his hospital experience. “I’d just tell parents to stay focused on why they’re doing the surgery to get through it,” she says. “I had to remember that this surgery was going to make things better for him.”
Toronto writer Astrid Van Den Broek is now relieved to know she’s not the only parent to shed a tear at seeing her toddler head into surgery.