David B. Reath, MD
Knoxville, TN (865) 450-9253
HKB Knoxville Staff

When A Surgeon Has Surgery (What I Learned While Recovering)

Very recently I had to have surgery on my neck, more specifically an anterior cervical discectomy and fusion at two levels: C 3-4 and C 4-5. Neck problems are very common for surgeons and after 30+ years of operating, I was certainly due.

Joni Mitchell’s iconic cover

My symptoms came on in a relatively short period of time and the surgery was done expeditiously because of the amount of spinal cord compression. I’m happy to say that the surgery went well, I have recovered nicely and I’m back to work. There was not a lot of pain and in many respects this has been easier than I had expected.

I’ve seen surgery from both sides now.
I have become in all aspects a surgical patient, which has given me a very real perspective of what my patients deal with during recovery.

It’s a bit like the Joni Mitchell song, “Both Sides Now”. You could say I’ve looked at surgery from both sides now, and in so doing, I think I can comment more intelligently on the recovery process and what we as patients go through.

The emotional rollercoaster is for real. A graph of what you’re feeling could look like this:

From our eBook the “Plastic Surgery Planner”.


You will feel up one day and down the next, or it can be a period of days that you are up or down. There is not necessarily rhyme or reason for why you are where you are, you just are. The thing I realized is that this starts before you have surgery. As you are thinking about rearranging your life and what you are asking of other people, your emotions start to swing. That’s OK. It’s just part of the process.

It’s not fun being a patient.
I’ve been both doctor and patient and I must say I prefer the former! I think all of us want to get the benefits of the surgery but the journey is not always fun. For me this was more about the emotional and psychological aspects rather than the physical aspects. You really lose control of many aspects of your life to varying degrees and this can be extremely frustrating.Time to Heal from surgery

It’s not fun being patient.
Recovery is a process. It will proceed at its own speed no matter how fast you want it to go. It is safe to say that it will always take longer than you want it to. You will need to be patient. It’s no fun being patient.

Surgery disrupts your life.
Ok, this one seems like a big duh, I know. But this disruption affects you as well as those around you. For me, if also affected the lives of the people I am supposed to be a doctor to. I had to postpone surgeries just as you may need to postpone your own professional obligations.
[I am deeply grateful to all my patients who were so understanding about having to delay their plans until I could heal. Their support and willingness to wait was very helpful to me in getting through all of this. Thank you!]

Your Support Team
Surgery is definitely a team sport, and your home team is one of the most important elements of a successful recovery. My absolute rock throughout this has been my wife, Lisa. She has been my strength and support through every aspect of this journey. You need someone like this to help you.

My son, Phillip, who is a physician assistant, came into town for two nights after my surgery and I think having a second person around right after surgery is helpful. This allows your team to trade off in terms of who is the primary caregiver. It allows someone to be at home while you are in the hospital and frees someone up to run errands that may be needed. It is also a bit of work helping someone to recover and sharing the work early on is a good thing.

You need to let people help you.
I am used to being the one who helps others – I am a surgeon after all — and it is very unnatural for me not to do this and to accept help from others. This is the time where I tell on myself.

The night of my surgery, Lisa was sleeping on the pullout chair in the hospital room and if you’ve ever done that you will know it is a nearly impossible task. In the middle of the night, I got quietly out of bed and went to the bathroom which was three steps away. After this, I heard Lisa sleeping and thought I would just go out to the nurses’ station to ask for a pain pill. (I didn’t want to use the call button as I knew this would wake her up.) As I was stealthily opening the door I heard Lisa say, “What are you doing?” (Got to work on my stealth.) I was promptly told to get back in bed and she would take care of this. I obeyed and behaved like a patient. She asked if I was not going to let her do things for me, what was she doing here? And she was right. As unnatural as it is to let people help you, you need to do it. So, get over it!

Stop saying “I’m sorry”.
There is a natural feeling that when people are helping you with your recovery that you are being a nuisance or are asking too much of them, and the typical response to this is to apologize for everything. This gets very old – more for them than you. So, stop it. You can show your peeps how much you appreciated their help when they’re better. A smile and a simple thank you goes over a lot better.

Too many people will ask you how you are doing.
The people who know and love you want to know how your recovery is going, and they will ask you how you are doing more than you want to be asked. This is done out of love and concern and you need to respond in kind even if it’s the third time you have been asked in an hour. One thing that you can do is to set up an email list of your family and close friends and just sent them a quick email once or twice a week to let them know how you are. By the way, your mom will call the most. She is, after all, your mom.

You will sleep a lot, as in a whole lot. This is all part of the recovery; this is how your body heals. So, when you are feeling tired, sleep. This could be in the morning, afternoon, or night. No worries here. Just go with it. After all, who doesn’t like a nap?

Don’t expect to be productive during your recovery.
Looking forward to several weeks of recovery without much to do, if you’re like me you are going to have all these ideas about the books you will read, the shows you will binge-watch, catching up on correspondence, or starting that novel you are planning on writing (just kidding here). More than likely you will not accomplish much. You are a patient. Your body is healing. So, just chill out.

Back off the medications as soon as you can.
With all operations, there will be some need for pain medication, and sometimes muscle relaxants as well. While these are needed for a time, they are definitely necessary evils. The medications can make you feel groggy and really out of it. Some more so than others. My advice is to use them as you need them, but get off of them as soon as it is reasonable. One thing to remember is that nothing short of a general anesthetic can relieve all pain. The goal is to lessen the discomfort to where it is tolerable. In terms of feeling like yourself again, the sooner you can get the drugs, the better. As I write this, it occurs to me that I would be a terrible drug addict.

Get outside.
Feeling the sun on your face and the breeze in your hair is wonderful, especially if you have been cooped up inside for a while. So, get outside when and as you can, even if it’s only for a few minutes. Have a meal on the deck or sit in the yard. One word of caution, if you get hot or even mildly overheated, it can really take a toll on you while you are recovering.

Intimacy helps.
Times of intimacy with your spouse or partner really take a hit through the process of surgery and recovery, but this is a very important part of your life and your well-being. When you are ready from the standpoint of your recovery resume your sex life and moments of intimacy with your loved ones. Obviously be careful and don’t physically overdo. But it will help you both heal.

Listen to the people around you.
As you recover and begin to get back into your normal life and routine you’ll want to do more than you should, or more than will be good for you. It’s a real balancing act of returning to normality and not overdoing it. Frequently, you are not the best judge of what you should or should not do.

The people around you can have a better perspective on how you are doing and what you are able to do than you will. So, listen to them. When they suggest that the plans you made a week ago may not be the best for you this evening, they are probably right. You will know this when you accept their offer to cancel and ask for a rain check and you feel relieved – even though you really wanted to do it.

None of what I have written here is rocket science to anyone who has been through surgery and recovery. Certainly, everyone’s experience will be a bit different. However, I would be very surprised if much of what I have experienced and written about does not ring true to some extent. It is a process and there is a lot of “go with the flow” involved.

You will get through it, we all do. The more you can accept it for what it is, the easier it will be on you.

Dr David B. Reath blog signature



David B. Reath, MD

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