Learning to Heal after Surgery: Body, Mind, and Soul

About ten months ago, I got the shock of my life. The word “health”, which used to mean my idealized dream of being thin, took on a whole new meaning. I’m still working through the experience, but I have learned a lot and I hope to help others who are faced with a frightening health diagnosis to learn how to heal after surgery and to be better than ever- body, mind and soul.

I woke up on New Year’s Day 2017 with a new resolve. I had decided not to make any resolutions, but rather to commit to living my life each day with purpose and not always trying to achieve some major weight loss goal. I was working through issues with stress and health from the previous year, and felt like 2017 was going to be my healthiest year yet. After all, I thought…it couldn’t be worse than 2016. Could it?

2016 was a beast. It’s almost comical looking back at it. January began with an urgent care visit while on vacation, where I received a diagnosis of h. pylori which was causing vomiting, immense stomach pain and possibly ulcers. Two weeks of antibiotics and acid reducers did a number on me, depleting my immune system and leading to several months of stomach issues. In April, I ended up in the ER with norovirus. While in the ER, I was told that they found a suspicious mass in my lung on my CT scan and I needed to get it checked out. In such a daze from the narcotics they gave me for the stomach pain, I left confused and scared. I then started seeing a pulmonologist to have testing on the mass, which they believed to be a cyst…”something I probably have always had.” They sent me to have a lung CT, which came back inconclusive. In the meantime, I had an endoscopy to rule out ulcers in my stomach. A few weeks later, in May, a bug bite on my arm turned into cellulitis and I got a staph infection, landing me back in urgent care. I went in for an ultrasound of the mass in my lung, since my insurance company would not approve an MRI, which also came back inconclusive. In June, I began having pain in my lower back and tailbone, which led to months of physical therapy and eventually spinal injections after Christmas. The day before New Year’s Eve, I had an MRI of my chest to diagnose the mass. I spent an hour and a half in an MRI machine and went home with no answers. I told my boyfriend: “You should trade me in, you got a lemon.” Thankfully, he said he’d rather keep me. I was ready for the year to be over and for a fresh new start.

So on that day of January 1, 2017, I was filled with hope and purpose. I was feeling good, stomach issues mostly resolved and my back had started to feel better. But then, it all came crashing down. On January 3rd, I got a call from my doctor: I had a tumor. The spot they thought was nothing was actually a tumor in the pleura outside of my lung, and “it may or may not be cancerous,” and I needed to have surgery to have it removed.

Receiving that kind of news brought feelings I had never experienced before. An all-in-one feeling of sheer terror, powerlessness, desperation…and yet, determination. I couldn’t let this beat me. But I was terrified. I called my boyfriend and he rushed home from work. I could see the fear in his eyes, but he did not let on that he was anything but hopeful and determined that we would get through this. I had my dad come over and I told him. Always my rock, he tried his best to comfort me. I was trying to be strong, but devolved into a puddle of tears, screaming in confusion about not being able to understand how this could happen to me. What did I do to cause this? Had it been years of being unhealthy or overweight? Drinking too much? Eating the wrong things? Stress? “What have I done to myself to cause this???” I kept thinking. He and Scott assured me, nothing. These things just happen sometimes, and we will take care of it. They both said, you have to have the right mindset going in so when you come out, you can bounce back. I decided to do everything I could to be ready to heal after the surgery.

It had to start before the surgery. The morning after the diagnosis, I started taking Yoga classes and eating healthier. I bought a book called Prepare for Surgery, Heal Faster and read it every day. I began drinking a daily green juice and eating tons of vegetables. I had a glass of pinot noir most nights because I had read that it had the highest concentration of reservatrol of any wine, and reservatrol kills abnormal cells. I took vitamins. I meditated. I read books about recovery and listened to podcasts about healing. I played with puppies. I spent time with friends and family. I watched funny movies. I did whatever I could to get my body, soul, and mind ready for the challenge ahead of me. It all helped me to be ready.

These little guys made me happy during the most stressful of times.

These little guys made me happy during the most stressful of times.

The day of the surgery, my boyfriend brought me to the hospital. I met my dad, my mom, and my sister in the pre-op room and I got prepped for the surgery. I said my see-you-soon’s and went in. Several hours later, in a fog, I woke up from the surgery to find out that it was successful. However, not only did they remove the tumor, they had to remove part of a rib it was attached to, shave down the ribs above and below it, and take out a lot of surrounding muscle and tissue around the tumor to ensure that they got it all. They had replaced the missing pieces of my chest wall with a surgical mesh. I spent four days in the hospital in the worst pain imaginable, barely able to eat except for graham crackers and ginger ale. On a positive note, I thought, for the first time in my life I actually wasn’t hungry! What an odd feeling!

I was so grateful to have the supportive team at Yale and my boyfriend by my side through the whole experience.
I was so grateful to have the supportive team at Yale and my boyfriend by my side through the whole experience.

I went home on Super Bowl Sunday to my amazing support system of my entire family and my boyfriend and started the healing process. Those first few weeks were pretty rough and I was in a daze, doped up on pain meds and barely able to function without a whole team to support me. A pillar of that team was my aunt Loretta, a nurse anesthetist who gave up her vacation to help take care of me. She nursed me back to health day by day. It wasn’t easy- I developed an allergic reaction to the surgical tape, which gave me painful rash all over my torso, and an allergic reaction to an antibiotic, which gave me a rash all over my body. The pain was managed only by a strict, unceasing schedule of medications and limited movement.

I was challenged to find strength in me I didn’t know I had. I learned to celebrate the mini achievements- a few steps without help, a nap without being awakened by pain, an hour without fear of the tumor growing back. I learned to take life more slowly, and not put all of my focus on the long goals, but to take it one day a time, and do what I could to heal. Over the course of a couple of weeks, I worked on just stringing along one good day after another. And thankfully, a few weeks after the surgery, I got the good news: it was benign. The type of tumor that I had is usually very slow growing, and not found until it is much larger and has turned malignant. I am so, SO lucky and blessed that they found it by accident, caught it in time, and got that little bugger out.

Flash forward 9 months and I am finally, FINALLY feeling good. After months of pain meds and rest, the pain has slowly dissipated and I feel pretty much normal again. I am committed to putting health first and nourishing my body from the inside out, starting with my mind and my soul. I’ve been able to bounce back because I look at health now as something much bigger than weight loss. Being healthy means taking care of your whole self: body, mind, and soul each and every day. It means having those good moments, good days, and stringing them all together. It’s about giving yourself a break and treating yourself with kindness. In a way, I have actually stuck to my original New Years resolution: health has been redefined on every level, and I just try to live my life each day with purpose.

I try to keep to the habits I made while preparing for the surgery so that I could better heal after surgery: yoga, meditation, nourishing with healthy food, staying active, and focusing on what’s most important in life…the people we share it with. I’ve learned that stress is pointless and I’ve banished that word from my vocabulary. I’ve learned that I can bounce back from anything. The trick lies in having a game plan and making sure to prepare your whole self, and nurture your whole self, through the process.

Post-op checkup and my surgeon says everything looks good!
Post-op checkup and my surgeon says everything looks good!

How have you learned to bounce back after illness or surgery?

Stay tuned for more tips on healing, recovery, and whole body-mind-soul health in future posts!

Courtney Wienslaw

My blog chronicles my 90-pound weight loss transformation and encourages people to live a healthy, happy, fit, and balanced lifestyle.

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A Firework in Progress Copyright 2017
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