Taken while doing nothing at the condo on Kauai
No doctor I’ve ever met actually recommends traveling in the week or six following an operation. But family emergencies, weddings and funerals, go-or-you’re-fired business trips, and “My Buddies Skied Vail and All I Got Was This Lousy Titanium Pin In My Fibula” situations happen.
So here’s my advice, which does NOT NOT NOT substitute for medical advice on how to deal with traveling after a recent surgery.
Talk to Your Doctor
Even if it’s intimidating and you don’t want to, you must talk to your surgeon if you plan to travel less than 6 weeks after any surgery. Make that six months after a major surgery. At the doctor’s office, take notes. Then, do everything your doctor says, to the letter and spirit of the law. Doc won’t be on the plane or in the car with you, and if you’re traveling far, you may not have access to comparable medical care for hours or even days.
While you’re in the doctor’s office, be sure to get a note explaining any implants or devices that might make it difficult to pass through airport security. Metal pins, plates, and rods, shunts and port-a-caths for medication, pacemakers and defibrillators, and various other medical goodies are all permitted on board planes–but they make security an (even bigger) pain, and you might not be used to dealing with that sort of thing yet. A letter from a physician can help smooth the way with the TSA.
Wherever on your body you were operated upon, it’s likely that an extra pillow or two will help make you more comfortable both in transit and in your bed-away-from-home. Bring the neck pillow for the plane flight, and perhaps a small rectangular one for lumbar support. If you’ve had knee or ankle surgery and need to elevate a limb, an extra pillow is always welcome. And plenty of pillows can help prop up a recently post-op traveler for a more comfortable night’s rest.
If you’ve had one of those surgeries, swallow your pride and get yourself a donut pillow. Think about it this way–do you want to sit comfortably, or do you want to look cool/stoic/whatever to a bunch of strangers and acquaintances?
Bring Ice Packs and Heat Packs
It can still be difficult to bring pre-frozen gel packs on board planes. Instead, bring an empty ziplock freezer bag, and ask a flight attendant to fill it with ice for you. If you’re stuck at the airport for a long time, you can do the same thing at any bar or fast food joint at the gate. Heat packs are easier–you can get these neat little hand-warmers that motorcyclists use. I’d also pack my full-sized heating pad and my favorite gel-ice pack into my checked bag for added comfort while I’m at my destination.
Move Slowly, But Move Often
Surgery increases the risk of blood clots in the legs. Long-distance air (0r bus, or car, or train) travel increases the risk of blood clots in the legs. When you double up on these risk factors, it’s doubly important to get up and walk frequently, no matter where you are. Even if you’re in a marathon meeting on a business trip, insist on getting up to walk for at least 5 minutes every single hour of the day. Same goes for long plane flights or train rides–I know it’s boring to pace up and down the aisles, but do it anyhow.
Even fidgeting and wriggling and stretching in place keeps the blood moving. Check out some stretches that are easy to do in tight quarters.
Rest Early, Rest Often
Getting a good night’s sleep is never so important as after a recent surgery. The more recent the operation, the more rest you need. On business trips, do the work that’s necessary, go back you your hotel room, recline, then sleep. Make use of room service if it’s available rather than going out to eat. The more time you can spend sleeping and resting, the quicker you’ll heal.
If you’re on an unavoidable trip to a family-style gathering, make arrangements to stay in the most physically and emotionally restful environment possible. That might mean shelling out extra bucks to get a hotel room rather than crowding into a house where a lumpy pull-out couch and constant emotional tension can’t be avoided. Especially in times of strain, like funerals and even weddings, it can be crucial to have a private space in which you can decompress in peace. Once again–show up to necessary functions, do the minimal amount of socializing, then retreat to your hotel to sleep lots and lots.
Think before you act, no matter how strong you think you are despite your recent injury and surgery, or how necessary it might appear to put in extra work hours, or how much pressure you feel to stay late to make sure family and friends are taken care of. How much use will you be to family and friends if you get dizzy and pass out? What will happen to your business deal if you pick up an infection and land back in the hospital? How much extra damage to an already traumatized limb will you do if you push it too far too fast?
The Bottom Line
If you can stay home for the first few weeks after minor surgery and the first few months after major surgery, do it. But if you must travel, be as careful and thoughtful as you know how. Follow your doctor’s orders, recommendations, and suggestions. Treat your physical safety and comfort as top priority. And sleep whenever you can.
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