The Dos and Don’ts of Recovery

On July 11th,  I had my fourth open heart surgery to replace my tricuspid valve.  I am grateful to have had one of the best surgeons in the country in an outstanding hospital.  The surgery went extremely well and I hopefully have about twenty surgery-free years ahead of me.

My cardiologist did his job.  My surgeon and his staff did theirs as well.  The P.A.’s who followed me in the hospital after the surgery and the incredible nurses who took care of me day and night did their job.  Now it’s my turn.  My job is to recover.

And that means I’m lucky.  I’m lucky enough to be able to recover and to know that once I do, I’ll be healthier than I was before.  But I can’t lie.  That doesn’t mean recovering is easy.  It isn’t.  But since this is my fourth time around the block, I have an idea of how to do it right.  And while I don’t necessarily believe myself to be an expert, I do think I have some valuable advice to share with others.  Some of you may face major surgery in the future; some may recuperate from an accidental injury or a medical condition.   For those of you who will face such a situation, here are some of my dos and don’ts that I have learned during my weeks of recuperation.

  1. Do push yourself – What do I usually feel like doing after surgery? Absolutely nothing.  I feel like laying in bed, curling into a ball (if my incisions will allow me to do so) and watching hours upon hours of television.  I don’t want to read.  I don’t want to write.  I don’t want to talk on the phone.  I don’t want to get up and take a walk.  I usually don’t want to eat or drink.

    All of this is normal after surgery of course.  Not only does a major operation take a physical toll on your body, but an emotional one as well.  Depression is a common symptom during recovery and loss of interest is a common symptom of depression.

    However, one cannot give into these feelings while recuperating.  Instead, it is necessary to push through the depression and the overwhelming apathy and do what needs to be done.  Pull off those covers, rise up and put on your slippers.  Despite the pain in your chest, legs, back or wherever,  take a lap around your hospital wing and eventually your living room.  Sit up in bed and eat those Cheerios one spoonful at a time; even better, sit at the kitchen table to eat if you can.  Get on the phone when your best friend calls and have a normal conversation.  Push yourself.  Push yourself until you feel like yourself again.  You’ll get there.

  2. But don’t be too hard on yourself – It is okay to be depressed.  It is alright to feel like doing nothing and for part of the day, you should do just that.  Watch your guilty pleasure on Netflix; read Us Weekly and In Touch.  Play Candy Crush until your lives run out.  Allow yourself to recoup.  As I just said, you must push yourself but you can also take some time each day to do nothing and let yourself wallow.  You deserve it.  Your body has been through a lot.
  3. Do have visitors – It is very possible that the last thing you’ll want to do while your recovering, and your hair has air dried, your clothes are basically pajamas and you desperately need a manicure and pedicure, is to have company.  The thought of carrying on a conversation, laughing at jokes, and talking about nonsense may seem completely daunting.  Do it anyway.

    Do you now that one of the mantras of Alcoholics Anonymous is “fake it ’til you make it”? The same phrase has been used in the treatment of depression.  The idea is that by pretending to be confident or happy or just okay, one will eventually become that way.  I am an avid believer in this concept.  While I’m recovering, even when seeing friends and family is the last thing I want to do (No offense, everyone), I find that when I do see them, I am forced to act normally.  I am forced to fake it.  And after a little while of pretending to feel like myself, I don’t have to fake it anymore.

  4. Do start a project – A project is a great idea for two reasons.  One, you’ll have plenty of time on your hands that you need to fill.  Two, your mind needs to focus on something other than your woes.  After my 2010 surgery, I scrapbooked the time between Anthony’s proposal and our one year anniversary.  I spent hours sitting at my dining room table sorting pictures and mementos.  I took short trips to Michael’s and A.C. Moore to buy the perfect accents.  Then I constructed each page carefully and by the time I enclosed the finished pages into a fabric covered book, I was pretty much recovered.  This time, I am crocheting a blanket for Rosemarie and working on a writing project as well.

    You don’t have to be crafty to complete a project.  You can do whatever it is that interests you.  Reorganize your file cabinet; design and display (with some help) that photo wall in your upstairs hallway.  Do that project you’ve been putting off for so long.  You finally have the time.

  5. Don’t watch sad movies or read sad books – This may really depend on an individual’s personality.  I suppose some people would find a fictional tragedy comforting in comparison to their own circumstances.  If you’re anything like me, though, you’ll want to stay away from Terms of Endearment, Beaches, and pretty much any Jodi Picoult novel. 

    After my surgery in 1997, I watched Daylight with Sylvester Stallone in which a group of people are trapped in the Lincoln or Holland tunnel after an explosion.  The film is certainly not considered a tearjerker but in one scene an injured man must be left behind to drown for the good of the group.  I cried for hours.  I sat on the beige carpet of my parents’ bedroom and sobbed in the front of the television.  Long after the movie ended and I went downstairs for dinner, my tears continued to fall.  My depression was more intense that night and a few days following.

    That is why after my 2010 surgery, I enjoyed the ups and downs of college life on Felicity and why I’ve been watching Carrie prance around Manhattan on Sex and the City for the past two weeks.  Remember, light and funny television = a happier patient.

  6. Do laugh as often as possible – It’s cliché to say, right? That laughter is the best medicine? But often clichés exist because they’re true.  Laughing lightens my load even if only for a few minutes.  I advise you to laugh whenever possible during recovery.  First, laugh at yourself.  There must be something funny about your recuperation.  Maybe it’s the way you walk hunched over like Marty Feldman in Young Frankenstein. Maybe it’s the fact that you can’t put on your own socks.  Maybe your medical condition has made you clumsy and you knock over an object every time you move.  Whatever it is, laugh at it.  Out loud.   Watch TV that makes you laugh.  Call your funniest friends.  Tickle your toddler under her chin.  Just laugh.

Honestly, for me, the hardest part of recovering this time around is not being able to take care of my daughter as I normally do.  This is the one aspect of my recovery with which I have no experience, but I’m doing my best to make it work.  Fortunately, I have full-time help from my mother at home and my sisters, in-laws, and friends are all more than willing to lend a hand.  I can’t do my normal with routine with Rosie.  I can’t give her a bath, dress her, or even get her out of the crib in the morning, but I have found other ways to spend time with her while I recover.  We sing songs together every day.  She sits with me in my recliner to take a nap or watch Barney.  In the evenings, she holds my hand while I take my daily walks outside.


Recovery is hard.  Recovering with a child is even harder.  But there are ways to make it somewhat easier.  Lucky me, I have plenty of people around me who make it easier as well.

12 thoughts on “The Dos and Don’ts of Recovery

  1. This was so helpful to me right now and just amazing. You are such an inspiration. I hope your recovery goes fast and that you are feeling like yourself in no time.

  2. I have chills from reading that, I wish you a speedy recovery. You are a courageous young woman, Anthony and Rosie are so lucky to have you, God Bless!!

  3. Thanks for this useful list, Kimberly – and I hope you continue to feel better little by little with every passing day. Lots of good advice here! I vividly recall the day, some weeks after my heart attack, marching around the apartment gathering up every ‘get well’ card and bouquet of flowers – and trashing the lot of them! I was sick and tired of being a “patient” and didn’t want my home to look as if some kind of invalid lived here.

    I prefer a different approach to visitors and your “fake it til you make it” advice, however. I found long visits during recuperation utterly exhausting (having to keep my happy face pasted on while I tried to keep my eyelids propped open). It would take me hours afterwards to recover from the exhaustion of each visit that seemed to literally suck the life right out of me. We ultimately solved this (after my family became alarmed by seeing how just one long morning visit could finish me off for the rest of the entire day!) when they started warning all phone callers: “Yes, she’d love a visit from you – but very very very SHORT visits work best at this time!” This simple change of routine saved me. I still had brief bursts of daily excitement with visiting friends and family, but they were mercifully short visits. Group visits worked even better – a few girlfriends, for example, at the same time. I could enjoy their chatter and laughter without having to do the heavy lifting of making conversation myself.

    This is also why, coincidentally, I’m in favour of NO VISITING HOURS in hospital aside from immediate family. Hospitals are filled with ill people who are trying to get BETTER. Forcing yourself to sit up and make small talk does not help you get better.

    Good luck to you as you get better so you’ll be right back to being the Mommy you’d love to be again.

    • Carolyn,

      Thank you so much for reading and for commenting. I think your words about visitors make an excellent point. I completely agree that these visits should be short and simple. I suppose we can all share our experiences to help each other but, at the same time, everyone is different and will recuperate in his/her own way.

      Thank you for your well wishes.

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