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When a Family Member Has Surgery

From Dr.

When a Loved One Has Surgery
The View From Here
Robin M. Mayhall Health Columnist

As hard as it may be to believe, I have had a total of seven operations in the past two years. Two of these were elective surgeries -- I have had both knees replaced with prosthetic implants -- and the rest were the result of trauma: two to repair a fractured hip and three to manage a broken and infected elbow. My insurance company hates me. I'm sure of it.

One good thing that has come to me from these experiences is a heightened understanding of what loved ones -- friends or family or both -- can do to help a surgical patient through the ordeal. Your friend or relative is likely to appreciate a cheery phone call the night before surgery, as well as a visit a day or two afterward as appropriate. You probably don't want to show up two hours after the procedure, but later that evening, or the next day if the patient has to stay overnight, a visit will most likely be more than appreciated. If you have any question as to whether you will be welcome, just give your friend a call.

If your friend is going to be in the hospital several days, consider visiting more than once if you can, and at least calling daily if you can't visit. Loneliness and boredom are a daunting combination for a surgical patient, especially when pain is added to the mix. And, you may not be aware that painkillers routinely given to patients after surgery are known to cause anxiety and depression, often making patients feel sad, depressed, paranoid and even fearful. Your presence can be an enormous relief to a person feeling down.

What can you bring a surgical patient besides flowers? Flowers and plants are beautiful and much appreciated, but consider that when your friend goes home from the hospital, he or she is going to have to haul all those flowers out of the hospital. You might consider bringing books and magazines instead. Light reading is really important in the hospital; entertainment magazines, comic books, romance novels and other light fiction are easier to concentrate on than heavy-duty works. They are also easier to get back into after being interrupted by the frequent nurses' visits.

You might also consider bringing cards or games. There is almost always a tray table in the hospital room where you can set up a card game or board game. Almost everyone knows how to play a few card games, or checkers, or a fun board game such as Life or Trivial Pursuit.

Along these same lines, you might consider bringing other fun things to do -- any kind of project or activity -- a paint by the numbers kit, clay or Play-Doh for modeling, or beads and other items for making jewelry. Another item that might be appreciated is photos from home. Bring some pictures of the two of you and other friends enjoying yourselves, and go through them together.

And if you have a friend or relative who needs repeated surgery, please don't let your enthusiasm for helping him or her through the ordeal fade. People who have never had surgery, or who have experienced maybe one or two surgical procedures in their lifetimes, are likely to have friends and family rally around when they do have to undergo a procedure. But for patients with chronic illnesses and multiple surgeries, the sympathy and help of family and friends can wane over time. Your friend needs you even more during the third surgery for the same problem than he or she did the first time. Think about it. After two previous failures, your friend may be even more nervous about the procedure, and perhaps more pessimistic.

In the end, it doesn't matter too much what you bring to your hospitalized friend, or even if you bring anything at all. Your companionship is the most important element.

Robin M. Mayhall is the arthritis editor at and has had rheumatoid arthritis for more than 10 years. She lives in Austin, Texas.

Talk with other Spouses and Friends

This, from Dr again, isn't about Cushing's, but the ideas apply well...

How Family Can Help
The View From Here

Robin M. Mayhall Health Columnist

Frankly, I feel like hell today. I usually try to keep a positive attitude, for two reasons. One, I do believe in the power of positive thinking. Two, I don't think anyone really likes to be around a whiner.

I believe positive thinking helps minimize the effects of pain and depression that a chronic illness such as rheumatoid arthritis can have on the patient. I firmly believe that if people complain all the time about how much they hurt, they are going to dwell more and more on those hurts and feel them more strongly. Positive thinking does the opposite: It distracts the mind from the body's troubles, and gives the brain cells something different to think about. It also helps release those all-powerful endorphins, the body's natural pain-fighting chemicals, which are released when we exercise, laugh, make love, and at other times.

As far whining is concerned, I don't think anyone finds an unhappy, negative person very fun to be around. The friends and family of a person with a painful chronic illness have a hard row to hoe. They want to be sympathetic to their loved one's pain and suffering, but they also want their loved one to get well. It may be hard for a friend or family member to understand that people with rheumatoid arthritis never truly "get well" -- though the disease can go into remission, and a person with RA can have some relatively symptom-free times. The disease, however, is incurable.

That can be difficult for friends and family to accept. In my own life, I've experienced times when friends wanted to know why I didn't just get well. They've felt compassion fatigue -- the syndrome that causes a person to stop feeling quite as much sympathy for the plight of a suffering friend. They're ready for their loved one to just be well, already. They might wonder why the doctor can't fix it. "What about that new treatment on the market -- won't that work for you?"

The person who actually has the disease has a tightrope to walk, as well. The person with arthritis wants to please friends and family; he or she wants to be fun to be around. But he or she also needs them to recognize the limitations when he or she isn't feeling well. In this situation, as in so many other facets of life, communication is the key. When you're not feeling well -- like me, today -- don't be afraid to let your friends know. Trust them to react with sympathy, knowing that when you feel better, you'll be a little more like your "old self" again.

Robin M. Mayhall is the arthritis editor at and has had rheumatoid arthritis for more than 10 years. She lives in Austin, Texas.

Visit the Cushing's Help message boards and let us know how you handle it when well-meaning friends and family ask why you aren't getting well.

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