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Sailing Through Surgery: Transforming Fear into Self-Empowerment

10 Oct

Midge James sent us this beautifully written tale of her experience with surgery.  She offers inspiration for sure, but also some terrific practical advice for the pre-surgery patient, squeamish or otherwise.  It’s longer than our usual postings, but it’s so well written, we couldn’t bear to edit it down.  Here it is:

How I Transformed My Fear Into Self-Empowerment

by Midge James

I often tell my patients that surgery, when properly prepared for, can become a healing ceremony that is both life-changing and life-enhancing.  The only way to take full advantage of the healing through surgery, however, is by acknowledging an ingredient that has  been missing for far too long—the innate wisdom of the patient.  All surgeons know that, though we can perform operations well technically, we do not have the power to heal the tissue we have injured.  This is up to the patients and their connection with their own inner wisdom.
Christiane Northrup, M.D.

Let’s face it, surgery can be scary.  No matter how minor, there are always risks and potential complications, especially with general anesthesia. Every surgery, large or small, is stressful.  Managing that stress can affect the outcome of surgery, since surgery provokes fear and fear depresses the immune system, which can complicate recovery. This article is about how I prepared for my own surgery and turned it from something frightening into an amazingly positive, empowering experience.  It was easy.  Really.

Earlier this year, I was diagnosed with an inguinal hernia.  My doctor suggested that, even though it did not seem acute, it was still something I should consider having repaired.  I thought about it without taking action for several months, as I was busy with life and other challenges. A few months ago I just had a feeling that it was time to take care of it. My research had shown me that hernias never repair themselves or just go away.  The only treatment is surgery. In fact, there is the risk that, left untreated, part of the intestines can become trapped outside the abdomen and the blood supply cut off—which can create a life-threatening emergency requiring immediate surgery (something I never wanted to be faced with).  So I called my doctor, asked for a referral to a surgeon, and made an appointment. 

The surgeon examined me and confirmed the need for surgery, as my hernia was “incarcerated”—that is, trapped outside the abdominal wall and unable to be pushed back in.  I felt confident with the doctor and so I scheduled my surgery for a date about five weeks away.  That, of course, is the first and most essential step—making the decision to have surgery and choosing a surgeon and a hospital.  

I went to bed that night feeling anxious and worried.  I was 60 years old and had never had surgery (except for a tonsillectomy when I was 7).  I have always been a very healthy person, and have not spent much time in doctors’ offices.  Therefore, this experience promised to be filled with all those things I hate—loss of control, fear of the unknown, possible complications, pain, having to trust the medical establishment.  Yikes!  

I awoke the next morning knowing I had two choices:  spend the next five weeks feeling fearful and anxious, and go into surgery in a state of tension and stress; or educate, prepare and empower myself and take responsibility for creating the best possible outcome.  I chose the latter, and defined for myself the premise under which I would be operating:

I have the power to positively affect the outcome of this situation by focusing on those things over which I have control—my thoughts, beliefs, feelings, behavior and attitude.

This simple act of choosing to cultivate my courage rather than indulging my fear made me feel better immediately.  I knew I could do this.  I decided to treat my surgery like an athletic event for which I would be training, a kind of a marathon.  I would approach it from all levels:  mental, physical, emotional and spiritual.  I would learn everything I could, institute supportive practices, and watch myself transform.  This could be fun!!

I did an Internet search on “preparing for surgery,” where I found a wealth of information and resources. Based on the recommendations I found, I ordered some books and CDs.  While waiting for them to arrive, I sketched out my plan for each area I had identified, and got started.

  I knew a positive attitude was most important.  I made a decision to view my surgery as something that was going to enhance my health and well-being.  I crafted expectations that my preparation would be useful and beneficial, that my surgery would go smoothly and without complications, and that my recovery would be quick and non-problematic.

Physical:  I am a fairly active person.  I live in the mountains and walk in the woods every day with my dog.  I also do Pilates and practice yoga.  My eating habits were already pretty good, but I knew they could be improved.  I take vitamins and supplements.  All the key elements were in place—I just decided to maximize and refine them in every way I could think of.  

I increased my exercise; continued to take my vitamins and supplements, and added in a few that were specifically recommended for surgery preparation (vitamin C, vitamin B Complex, beta carotene, and zinc, in addition to the multi-vitamins and probiotics I was already taking); I also learned that vitamin E is great for healing, but should be discontinued at least two weeks prior to surgery, as it can interfere with platelet formation; and that certain herbs should not be taken because of their potential to interact with other drugs, cause excessive bleeding, intensify the effects of anesthesia, or cause immune system repression.  Those include ephedra, St. John’s Wort, echinacea, garlic, gingko, ginseng, kava kava, and valerian.  In addition, over-the-counter pain relievers like Advil, Aleve, and Motrin can cause excessive bleeding. The recommendation is that those herbs and pain relievers should be discontinued at least two weeks prior to surgery. This is useful information to have in advance, as these warnings aren’t usually given until the pre-anesthesia appointment that occurs only days before surgery.

I also went on an organic cleansing diet that was designed to be anti-inflammatory, hypoallergenic and detoxifying to the liver.  I eliminated dairy, wheat, corn, all gluten-containing products, eggs, soy, refined fats and oils, shellfish, red meat, alcohol, sugar, and caffeine.  I ate lots of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans and legumes, nuts and seeds, fish, and free-range turkey and chicken; and drank lots of water, green tea and herbal teas.  (I felt great eating this way, and I lost five pounds—a happy side benefit!!) I also made sure I got enough sleep—at least eight hours a night, which seems to be optimal for me.  

Even the simple act of breathing deeply can produce profound results.  As a long-time student of yoga and meditation, I know that even a few minutes of deep breathing can create a dramatic change in my state—lowering my heart rate and blood pressure, relieving my anxiety, and producing a feeling of relaxation, peace and well-being.  It’s such a simple practice for such powerful results, and I can do it anywhere!

Emotional/Spiritual:  I listened to the CDs that focused on deep relaxation and preparation for surgery, and also utilized meditation, guided imagery, and self-hypnosis. (A list of the specific books and CDs I used is included at the end of this article.)  Research at Harvard Medical School and the UC Davis Medical School has confirmed that people who consciously prepare for surgery have less pain, fewer complications, and recover more quickly.  Additional studies have shown that even listening to these CDs once or twice in the days leading up to surgery provides substantial benefits, including a deeper state of relaxation going into the experience  (which results in lower blood pressure and less anxiety).  And in many cases there are reports of less anesthesia required, less bleeding at the incision site, less post-operative pain, and quicker recovery, including hospital stays that were reduced by an average of 1.5 days.

Peggy Huddleston’s book, Prepare for Surgery, Heal Faster, was enlightening and supportive.  I also used her companion CD, Relaxation/Healing, often listening to it just before bedtime.  My favorite CD was A Meditation to Promote Successful Surgery, by Bellaruth Naparstek, which includes both guided imagery and affirmations.  I listened to the affirmations every day and was deeply affected by them.  For example:  “I know there are times when I become worried, fearful, sad or angry, and I acknowledge and accept what I feel as my inner truth of the moment.”  Or “I believe my body is teaching me something useful, and that these circumstances are challenging me to learn, and change, and grow.”  Or “the more I can accept and allow how I feel, the more I allow my body to heal.”

I also put together a healing team—seven women whom I love and who know me well. I asked them to visualize or imagine (around the time of my surgery and afterward) a soft pink blanket of healing and love surrounding me; or a vibrant blue-green wave of healing energy washing over me. This enabled the people closest to me to feel a part of this process rather than just sitting around worrying and waiting to hear how I did. They all reported what a powerful and healing experience this was for them as well, and how much they appreciated having something to do that would help me. It also helped that my husband went to the surgery with me—I felt safe and confident knowing he was there, watching out for me, and available if I needed him.

In addition, I visualized the day of my surgery—I saw my surgeon feeling confident and inspired. And I imagined the operating room staff working with competent, caring, respectful hands, carrying out their work; and I heard everyone commenting at the end about how well it had all gone.  

Regarding this emotional and spiritual preparation, I would like to say that these techniques can be adapted and utilized by anyone, regardless of religious or spiritual beliefs (or lack thereof).  I am not a religious person, but I do have deep spiritual beliefs.  For a more religious person, meditation might instead be prayer; and the healing team can be a prayer circle.  For an atheist, the visualization can be about one’s own well-being, resilience and ability to heal, and the skillful performance of the medical professionals.  

I loved having a goal—knowing that all this effort was going to benefit me on the day of my surgery and during my recovery.  It felt great to be taking such extremely good care of myself; I reaffirmed to myself that I am a person of value, and that my well-being is important to me and to those who care about me.  On the day of my surgery, I felt relaxed and confident.  I came out of the anesthesia quickly, and was able to go home a little over an hour later.  

As I write this, it is almost three weeks since my surgery.  My incision is healing beautifully and I feel great.  I don’t have quite as much energy as I’d like yet, but I know that is coming.  I took it easy for a week, rested and slept a lot.  I went for a short walk the day after surgery, and have been walking daily since then, adding a little more time each day.  I went back to Pilates a week after my surgery (taking it very easy), and to yoga class two weeks after.  I’m careful about lifting anything too heavy, but I can carry my own grocery bags now.  

Most importantly, I know that I was a full participant in this healing process.  I educated myself, took responsibility for my own well-being and healing, mindfully and lovingly prepared myself, and played an essential part in creating these results.  I chose my surgeon and hospital carefully—and was treated with the utmost professionalism, skill, efficiency, and caring.  I asked for help and got more than I expected.  And I did it all in a state of relaxation and joy, with no fear (okay, maybe just a tiny little bit of fear the morning of my surgery, but it was tiny!).

“I believe that my body is teaching me something of value, and that these circumstances are challenging me to learn, and change, and grow.”  And so I did.

Belleruth Naparstek

Psychotherapist, author and guided imagery pioneer Belleruth Naparstek is the creator of the popular Health Journeys guided imagery audio series. Her latest book on imagery and posttraumatic stress, Invisible Heroes: Survivors of Trauma and How They Heal (Bantam Dell), won the Spirituality & Health Top 50 Books Award