My Surgery Is Tomorrow, and I’m Scared!

This will be me around noon tomorrow. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

My shoulder surgery is tomorrow. I have been pretty calm all week. In fact, I’ve been looking forward to the surgery, for two reasons. First, because it’ll finally fix my shoulder, which aches all the time, and that will be nice. Second, because while I’ll be in more pain for a few weeks post-surgery than I’m in now, I’ll be on drugs, so I’ll probably be more comfortable than I am now. Yes, I’ve been calm all week. But as of this morning, I am Freaking. Out.

I woke up feeling very energetic, but I realized pretty quickly that I wasn’t myself when, before I’d even finished my first cup of coffee, I started dusting the whole house. That turned into cleaning the bathrooms, which turned into cleaning the floors. My house hasn’t been this clean since the week before I went into labor. The cleaning hurts my shoulder, but I didn’t notice it while I was running around in a frenzied manner. Now that I’m forced to sit still (W is napping, and I am keeping her company), my mind is racing and my shoulder aches. I’m face to face with the fact that no, it’s not just that I wanted a really clean house to come home to — it’s that I’m scared shitless.

Where’s your damn science now, the snarky part of my brain asks in a taunting way. You know you aren’t going to DIE in there, you idiot. The snarky part of my brain can be really mean. But it’s right. My odds of dying under general anesthesia are hard to calculate, because most of the statistics out there include those who are ill before surgery, in general poor health, undergoing emergent procedures (which are riskier) or elderly. Still, for all surgical procedures, the risk of death as a result of anesthesia is between 0.01 and 0.016% (Arbous et al, Lienhart et al), with the risk for healthy individuals having non-emergent procedures closer to 0.0004%. For the sake of comparison, I am almost 40 times more likely to die in a car accident (odds of 1 in 6700, or 0.015%) than on the surgical table. I know this intellectually, and yet I am still scared. This is at least partly because humans are absolutely terrible at assessing risk accurately.

It occurred to me the other day that I am not actually scared of dying on the table. How do I know this? Because if W were the one going for surgery (heaven forbid), I would feel sorry for her, and I would wish to be in her place…but I would not be afraid she was going to die. By extension, the logical part of my brain explains to me, you are not actually scared you’re going to DIE. You’re scared of being out of control. You’re a control freak. A neurotic, obsessive control freak. Ok, that last bit might have been the snarky part, rather than the logical part. Still, I think there’s something to this. I am not scared I won’t wake up. I’m scared of feeling myself going under.

The Adequate Mother, who is an anesthesiologist, wrote a very helpful post about what to expect when you’re anesthetized (thank you!). Between that and watching videos of the procedure I’m going to have (or part of the procedure, anyway; these videos cover the Bankart repair, and I am also having a capsular repair), I am intellectually prepared for what will happen tomorrow.

In the quiet spaces in my brain, though, the fear continues to churn. I am afraid of being in pain. Not because of the pain itself, but because I’m scared it’ll make me cranky and less responsive to W. I am scared for W, that she’ll be afraid of what’s going on. I’ve talked to her about it a lot (I even made a little book for her about what is going to happen and what Mommy will be like when she comes home), but I know it’ll still be difficult for her. I’m scared that she’ll be nervous, or worried, or frightened that I can’t hold her with both arms. That I can’t sleep beside her. That I won’t be giving her nighttime bath. That I won’t be able to cuddle her as she falls asleep, or nurse her when she wakes in the middle of the night with her teeth aching. I’m scared she won’t feel as connected to me. I’m scared of losing some of our attachment. That’s probably silly — I’m the mama, after all, and nothing is changing that — but I’m scared all the same. I’m scared that as a reasonable and appropriate medical precaution, I had to write a living will and medical power of attorney for the first time in my life. I had to specify which organs I wanted to donate and for what purpose, under what conditions I wanted medical care to cease, what I wanted done with my remains.

I’m a logical person. So logical that sometimes, I think, I seem cold. I know that. But logic, science, statistics, facts and figures…they have nothing to offer me now. Tomorrow I will have to lay back, let go, trust someone else completely — and science won’t be there to comfort me. If I want comfort tomorrow, I will need something even more profound. Some people call it god, some say faith. Me? I call it peace. And I hope the universe has some to spare for me tomorrow.


Any words of wisdom? Advice? Experiences to share?



Arbous et al. Mortality associated with anaesthesia: a qualitative analysis to identify risk factors. Anaesthesia. 2001 Dec;56(12):1141-53.

Lienhart et al. Survey of anesthesia-related mortality in France. Anesthesiology. 2006 Dec;105(6):1087-97.


14 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Dorit Reiss
    May 08, 2012 @ 10:28:47

    being afraid of losing control to the doctors during a surgery does not mean you’re a control freak. I bet you’re okay with being on a bus, train or plane (even if a little scared). But the level of trust involved in being put to sleep and literally completely in the hands of other people during the surgery is very high. When many of these people will be strangers, why wouldn’t you feel a twinge of uncertainty? (and I’ll be nice and not mention torts cases about things like that). For what it’s worth, I want to remind you that in many countries, in times long gone, women going in to give birth would be put to sleep (I have read a fun article about the Sweden case) and would be in the hand of the doctors during the whole process – which may have advantages, but imagine the fear those women felt, especially since they had good cause, especially in early days, to not completely trust the doctors.

    Other than this, I’ll just say good luck tomorrow, and have minimal pain.


  2. theadequatemother
    May 08, 2012 @ 16:05:53

    It’s completely normal to be nervous prior to an anesthetic. I give anesthetics and I would be nervous because, like you, I don’t like the sensation of relinquishing control. Those feelings are normal and we expect them in our patients.

    However, you can still trust science. Anesthesiologists are highly trained specialists (5 years + after medical school) and have an unparalleled understanding of physiology and pharmacology. They’ve done enormous good in the realms of patient safety and improving surgical outcomes. They are one of the only specialties where malpractice premiums have historically been falling.

    Some thoughts on your bankart repair…at my institution it is our practice to offer a brachial plexus block (interscalene) placed preoperatively for post-op pain control. It may be possible for you to have the surgery done under this regional block as well (with or without sedation) which means you might have the option of avoiding a GA altogether. If you are having a minimally invasive technique (arthroscopic repair), sometimes the posterior port site is outside of the field of the block but can be covered by the surgeon with local. Something to discuss with your anesthesiologist tomorrow for sure.

    Have I given you something new to research tonight? 🙂

    Will be thinking of you tomorrow.


    • SquintMom
      May 08, 2012 @ 18:33:41

      Thanks for your input! Yes, they’ll be doing an interscalene block. However, they also want to do a general, probably because it’s just easier that way. And I’m fine with that; I know it’s safe, and I don’t really need to hear the sound (or feel the pressure) of someone drilling into my shoulder blade. :&

      Thanks for sharing the info about malpractice premiums for anesthesiologists; funny thing, but of all the stats I’ve seen, that one comforts me the most! Honestly, at this point, I’m more worried about the after-surgery stuff (dealing with a 15-mo-old with my arm in a sling for 6 weeks) than anything else!


      • The Adequate Mother
        May 09, 2012 @ 08:01:08

        Maybe put her arm in a sling too? 🙂

      • SquintMom
        May 09, 2012 @ 19:37:00

        Neat idea! She was a little freaked when I first got home but is doing better now. Maybe I will try that tomorrow. Btw, I asked about the scalene block and the doc said he preferred to just do a lot of local at the end of the surgery, and that it would help for 14-24 hrs. So far so good; lots of deep aching but no sharp pain. The anesthesiologist was super nice. Funny thing, the two anesthesiologists I have had (the other was for my epidural) have been the nicest, calmest doctors EVER!

  3. Sara
    May 08, 2012 @ 19:00:08

    This is timely for me in a way right now. My 2-year-old son is going in to get his tonsils and adenoids removed due to sleep apnea in a couple weeks and I am absolutely terrified of him dying under the anesthesia. I realize it’s highly unlikely, but knowing that doesn’t seem to help. Appreciate the stats and the post from the Adequate Mother (who I have also been reading). Good luck!


  4. Cal
    May 08, 2012 @ 19:38:32

    Good luck for tomorrow! It is perfectable understandable what you are feeling right now.
    I had surgery when my daughter was 19 months, which left my left shoulder useless for a couple of months. It is not easy but it is doable, you will just need extra help, make sure you do have that extra help and are not shy about asking for it. Just do not try too hard or you may set back the whole recovery thing.


  5. Trackback: Scared surgery | Fotogreen
  6. Emma
    Jan 11, 2014 @ 22:55:29

    I really enjoyed reading this post. I am having surgery next week and am also very nervous. I created a blog last week to allow myself to vent and just get through this whole scary ordeal. How was the anesthesia experience? I know this is an old post but if yousee this some how, let me know. 🙂


    • Kirstin
      Jun 04, 2014 @ 13:49:36

      Hi there. I’m sorry; somehow your comment ended up in spam and I just found it!!! I hope your surgery went well 🙂


  7. csteel
    Nov 05, 2014 @ 13:44:19

    OMG Thank you for writiing this. I have surgery tomorrow and I’m terrified–and it IS a control issue for me. Control is probably my middle name. (I have a Ph.D., too, so I’m used to being IN control). Trusting someone else with my body is very difficult. I know this was long ago now, but thanks for leaving it up!


    • Kirstin
      Nov 05, 2014 @ 14:51:19

      I hope everything goes well for you. I should have written a follow-up to this post. The fact is, the experience wasn’t nearly as scary as I thought it was going to be. I met the anesthesiologist beforehand (he came in and talked to me in pre-op), and he was very mellow. I told him I was really scared and he gave me something for the anxiety. By the time I was rolling back toward the OR, I was so chill I wouldn’t have cared what happened. I remember scooting from the gurney onto the OR table, and then I don’t remember anything else…I just woke up. They were really careful to make sure I had pain meds and anti-nausea meds on board before I woke up, so I was relatively comfortable. Hang in there and don’t be afraid to tell them how you’re feeling!! I’ve actually had a lot of people reading this post lately (presumably because they are googling “scared of surgery”). If you want, come back after your experience and leave an update; future readers would love to know that everything went ok!!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: