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Preparing your child for the hospital and surgery

Bookmark and Share Your child needs elective surgery, and a date has been scheduled. Unlike emergency surgery, an elective procedure gives you the time to prepare your child psychologically for the hospital and the surgery. But, like parents everywhere, you are probably uncertain about the best ways to prepare your child. Provide age-appropriate information
Explain the problem
Talk about their fears
What they might be afraid of
Encourage questions
Explain what will happen
It's not just what you say

Provide age-appropriate information
The job is not as daunting as you may think. Michael Marchildon, MD, pediatric general surgeon with the Virtua/duPont Children’s Health Program, advises: “The key is to give children information at their level of understanding, correct misconceptions and dispel fears and feelings of guilt. You need to help your child understand the physical problem that requires the surgery and become familiar with the hospital and some of the procedures she will undergo. Children of all ages cope much better if they have some concrete idea of what’s going to happen and why it’s necessary.” Explain the problem
Begin by explaining the reason for the surgery in simple, non-threatening words. Tell your child – at her level of understanding – about her medical problem and why surgery is necessary. Dr. Marchildon, who has been performing pediatric surgery for more than 20 years, advises parents against using alarming language, such as "the doctor will cut you," "open you up," or "sew you with a needle." Simply say that the doctor will fix the problem.
“Although children seldom express it, they may fear that their parents are not telling them everything – that their health problem is worse than they have been led to believe,” states Dr. Marchildon. “Don’t mislead your child; tell as much of the truth as your child can understand.” Talk about their fears
Your child will probably fear that the operation will be painful. Explain to her that a special doctor, called an anesthesiologist, will give her special medicine to make her sleep very deeply so she won't feel anything during the operation. Once the operation is finished, she'll wake up. (Older children in particular need special assurances that they will wake up.) Again, avoid threatening language. Don't say "you will be given gas" or "you will be put to sleep." A child may confuse "gas" with the chemical that can poison or kill, and confuse "put to sleep" with what happens to pets. “Give assurance that you will be there when your child wakes up,” states Lynn M. Walker, RN, BSN, CNOR, nurse manager of the operating room at Virtua West Jersey Hospital Voorhees. “Explain that if anything is hurting right after the operation, a doctor or nurse can give medication that stops the pain.” What they might be afraid of
The two greatest surgery-related fears of preschool children are the possibility of separation from (or abandonment by) parents and the possibility of pain. School-age children also fear needles, knives and mutilation. Give a child in this age group clear, rational information as well as assurances that the surgery will only fix an existing problem, not create a new one. In addition to the fears of younger children, adolescents are also afraid of losing control or "sounding childish" by expressing fear, anxiety and pain. They may also be afraid of waking up during the operation – or not waking up afterward. “A parent has to anticipate these fears,” states Dr. Marchildon. “Emphasize that expressing these fears is quite normal at any age. Correct any misconceptions about disfigurement or injury. And assure the child that anesthesia is very safe today; she will not wake up during the operation but will certainly wake up afterward.” Encourage questions
Encourage your child's questions about the health problem and hospital experience, so that other fears and anxieties can be expressed. Take all questions seriously, and answer them to the best of your ability. “Let your child know that the doctors and nurses will be very willing to answer questions, too,” adds Walker. Virtua’s surgical team has received special training in pediatrics and has experience in addressing the fears of children and parents. Explain what will happen
Ask your healthcare provider for information about what to expect at the hospital that’s written for children. Reading together and discussing the surgery will make the hospital seem less threatening. Discuss each idea and encourage your child's questions. At Virtua Voorhees, you have the option to tour the surgical area so that you and your child can become familiar with the hospital setting. The night before surgery, a nurse calls the parents to let them know when and where to arrive, to give them instructions on what the child can eat or drink, as well as to answer any questions. On the day of surgery, parents can stay with their children up until the moment they are taken into surgery – and they can be with them the moment they come out. It's not just what you say
Remember, as you discuss the hospital and surgery, that not only your words, but nonverbal things communicate your assurance: your tone of voice, facial expressions, gestures and body language convey powerful messages. If you appear fearful, your child is likely to feel fearful regardless of the words you use to explain things.