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What's It Like to Have Surgery?

If you're scheduled for surgery, it can help to find out what to expect before you get to the hospital.

Depending on the type of surgery you need, you may have inpatient surgery or outpatient surgery (also called ambulatory surgery):

  • Inpatient surgery means that the surgery is done in the hospital. You may need to stay in the hospital for a day or more after the surgery so the doctors and nurses can check on you.
  • If you have outpatient surgery, you will go home the same day. Outpatient surgery may be done in a hospital or surgery clinic and you can go home when the doctor decides you're ready.

On the Day of Surgery

Before Surgery

When you first arrive at the hospital or clinic for your surgery, you will check in and be sent to the “pre-op” area. Here you will meet lots of health care providers that will take care of you during and after your surgery.

A nurse or other health care provider will:

  • Give you an identification bracelet — a plastic tape with your name and birthdate on it.
  • Give you a gown and paper bonnet to wear.
  • Ask you to take out all piercings and take off all jewelry.
  • Take out your contact lenses (if you wear them).
  • Ask you questions about your medical history, including any allergies you might have and any symptoms or pain you may be having.
  • Ask you if there is any chance of being pregnant (for girls).
  • Take your vital signs like your heart rate, temperature, and blood pressure.
  • Ask you the last time you ate or drank anything. Having food or liquids in your stomach can lead to vomiting during or after the surgery and cause harmful complications.
  • Shave the area to be operated on (if needed).
  • Start an IV (an intravenous line) so that medicines can be given.
  • Do any blood tests needed.

You and your family will also meet with the anesthesiologist or certified registered nurse anesthetist (CRNA). These health care providers give you the medicines that will help you fall asleep or numb an area of your body so you don't feel the surgery.

There are several types of anesthesia. General anesthesia causes you to become completely unconscious during the surgery. If surgery is done under local anesthesia, you'll be given an anesthetic that numbs only the area of your body to be operated on. You also might be given a medication that makes you drowsy during the procedure.

During Surgery

As you're wheeled into a hospital operating room, you may notice that the nurses and doctors are wearing face masks and plastic eyeglasses, as well as paper caps or bonnets, gowns, and booties over their shoes. This keeps the OR very clean and protects you from germs while you're in the operating room.

After Surgery

After your surgery is over, you'll go to the recovery room, where nurses will watch your condition very closely for a few hours. This room is called the post-op (postoperative) room or PACU (post-anesthesia care unit). Your parents can visit you here. The surgeon will talk to you about how the surgery went. They can answer any questions you or your parents have. You may be pretty tired and not remember what is said. But don’t worry, you can ask questions when you’re more awake later.

If you've had general anesthesia, you may feel groggy, confused, chilly, sick to your stomach, or even sad when you wake up. After your anesthesia wears off and you're fully awake, you'll go to a regular hospital room if you're staying overnight. If you had an outpatient procedure, you'll be monitored by nurses in another room until you can go home.

If you feel pain after the surgery, the doctors and nurses will make sure you have pain relievers to keep you more comfortable. You may also need to take other medicines, such as antibiotics to prevent infection. 

What You Can Do

Lots of surgeries are done every day, and most of them go smoothly. If you're worried about having surgery, try these tips to help feel more at ease:

Ask questions ahead of time. Your surgeon, anesthesiologist, and nurses can answer your questions about the surgery, how you'll feel afterward, how long it will take to return to your normal activities, what type of scarring you might have, etc. Don't feel embarrassed about asking lots of questions — the more informed you are, the more comfortable you'll feel about having surgery.

Be sure you're clear on instructions — and ask if you're not. Be sure you know what you can do before and after surgery. Ask about any medicines or herbal supplements that you take and if you need to stop them before surgery. Make sure you know when you need to stop eating and drinking before the surgery.

Practice healthy habits. Smoking is never a good idea, but it's especially bad before getting surgery or after surgery when your body is trying to recover. Ditch the cigarettes, get plenty of rest, and eat nutritious foods.

Try relaxation techniques. If you're nervous or anxious, take a few slow, deep breaths or to help you cope with your anxiety. Or think of your favorite place and what you like to do there.

Plan ahead. If you have to miss school because of surgery, talk to your teachers ahead of time and arrange to make up any tests or assignments. Get a friend to take notes for you and drop off homework assignments. By planning ahead, you won't have to spend your recovery time stressing about your grades.

Tell a few people. If you don't feel like sharing the details of your surgery, you don't have to — but telling some friends that you'll be out of school for a few days might ensure you'll have some visitors! Your friends might even have some surgery stories of their own to share.

Pack a few favorites. After you're out of the recovery room, you might want the comfort that some favorite music, books, magazines, or a journal can bring, so make sure that when you're packing your hospital bag, you throw in some things to do.

Reviewed by: Amy W. Anzilotti, MD
Date Reviewed: Jan 10, 2022

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