baby's hand wrapped around mother's finger

Coping With Your Child’s Surgery

By: Cristina Moreno, Bilingual Outreach Specialist, Penfield Children’s Center

As a medical interpreter, I have been present at dozens of small surgeries and procedures, ranging from eye surgeries, heart catheterizations, c-sections, and biopsies to name a few. After witnessing so many successful outcomes and hearing doctors reassure their patients of the minimal risks, I felt confident in the general safety of most procedures. I was the interpreter countless times, going over the risks and benefits, reassuring the patient everything would go well, and instructing them on how to prepare for their surgery. I had been directly involved yet completely disconnected. I had heard and repeated the same words so many times that informing someone they would need surgery felt almost as mundane as telling them they had a cold and would be fine with over the counter cough syrup. I felt trusting in medical practices and the doctors who performed them daily.

That was until a few weeks ago when I found myself in the patient’s chair, or rather as the mother of the patient, when a specialist explained to me that my son would need a minor yet necessary surgery. “Minimally invasive”, “very common”, “easy recovery”, these were the phrases that I had spoken to patients many times, and yet as I heard them being said to me, I felt like my chest was going to explode. I knew that amongst all of the reassuring words also came the inevitable discussion of risks, that while unlikely, are always present. I squeezed my son a little tighter as I realized that although it is a minor procedure he would still need to be completely asleep, which would mean he would be heavily medicated, possibly intubated, and I would not be able to be there to hold his hand. As the mother of a preemie, I always knew it was possible that he may need some sort procedure at one point or another, but as he got older and caught up with his peers, the possible effects of his prematurity seemed less real.

I know the procedure my son needs is relatively minor, and I cannot begin to share the feelings of parents whose children are in need of major surgeries or treatments. However, I can relate to the sense of helplessness in knowing that my role ends when I walk through the hospital doors that morning, and until the time my son is handed back to me, I must put my faith in others.
My son is too young to comprehend what is going on so I do not have to worry about him feeling afraid, but if your child is older and is expressing concern about having a procedure, there are things you can do to help dispel some of their fears and to help you both feel more mentally prepared.
• Look for books or movies that can explain the process in a kid-friendly way. Pediatric specialists may have these types of materials available for you.
• Make it fun. Fun is probably the last word you would associate with surgery, but there are ways to help surgery day feel special for your child. Let them wear their pajamas on the way to the hospital so it’ll feel like they are going to a slumber party. You can even let them choose a special treat like a shake or ice cream they can have once the anesthesia wears off and they are cleared to eat.
• Answer their questions the best and as honestly as you can, but be careful to avoid words that may frighten them more. Words like cutting or stitches are sure to bring on tears in young children. Many healthcare professionals also advise being careful with using the term “put to sleep” when talking about anesthesia. Many children understand that pets are “put to sleep” when they are old or ill, so they may think that if they are put to sleep they will not wake up again. Reassure them that they will only be asleep or napping for a little while and when they wake up you will be nearby.
• Relaxation techniques such as deep breathing may be more useful for you as the parent. Work through your own fears first and try to remember that pediatric specialists perform these procedures on a regular basis and are used to working with children, so they are often able to help them feel more comfortable as well.

It is important to remember that our children look to us to help them feel safe. Some children can be very emotionally sensitive and will pick up on whether you are on edge or anxious. Keeping your emotions under control, educating yourself about what to expect, and focusing on the positives will help both you and your child feel more at ease come surgery day.

Have you experienced this type of situation with your child? How have you helped calm your child’s nerves and kept your own at bay?

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