How to prepare when your child needs surgery

If your child requires a hospital procedure, such as having tonsils removed or teeth pulled, getting inner ear tubes or having eye surgery (the most common surgeries for kids ages three to 18), there are steps you can take to make it easier on everyone.

“Usually a child life specialist will be on hand at a pre-operation appointment to help decrease anxiety and make your child’s hospital stay less traumatizing,” says Liz Geideman, a registered nurse at Toronto East General Hospital, who has specialized in pediatrics since 1992.

“Kids ages three and up will spend time with the child life specialist talking through the surgery – we use a puppet named Max who wears a hospital gown,” says Liz. “We go through the steps, from the night before surgery to when you go home, and explain how to prepare. We tell kids to bring their favourite toy, we explain that there is no eating or drinking before surgery and we let them hold the mask and put it on to practise for when they will be given an anesthetic.”

She says the most important thing parents can do aside from bringing their child to their pre-op appointment is to be truthful with their child. “Don’t tell them they’re going to a birthday party,” says Liz. “You need to be open and honest in an age-appropriate way.”

At the pre-op appointment, which usually takes place about a week before surgery (or as close to the surgery date as possible) parents will have the chance to fill out forms and answer questions about their child’s likes and dislikes. “Our goal is to personalize care and treat each child as an individual,” says Liz. “We know they will be anxious, but if we know they like Elmo or baseball or that they have a dog, we are better able to care for your child when they are nervous.”

After surgery, the doctor will usually come out to the waiting room to talk to parents. This is an important way that hospitals reassure parents and keep them feeling properly informed.

Parents have a big role to play in the recovery process. “It’s so important for parents to get their kids to follow their doctor’s orders to get them better,” says Liz. “What harms kids most, for example, is when a child who has just had their tonsils removed doesn’t want to eat or drink. As parents, it’s tempting to let your kids guide you – especially when they are in pain. But if you don’t ensure they drink and stay hydrated, the surgical site will dry and crack, and you will be back in the hospital. You have to push your kids to get better.”

Pack your bags

Your hospital will provide a packing list and instructions, but in general, here are a few things you will need:

  • A change (or two) of comfortable clothes or pyjamas for your child.
  • Your child’s favourite toys or comforting blanket.
  • Books or quiet entertainment for your child. This may come in handy depending on their post-surgery state.
  • Magazines or entertainment for parents. You may end up spending quite some time in waiting rooms or by your sleeping child’s bedside.
  • You can bring your phone or computer but will only be allowed to use it in designated areas of the hospital.
  • Your wallet with some cash in case you need to run to the cafeteria for food or a pick up a prescription for your child.
  • Any prescription medications your child is taking.
  • Hand/face wipes.
  • Toothpaste and a toothbrush.

Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, February/March 2013.

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