No matter how many times I sent my daughter into an operating or medical procedure space, it was always unnerving. Though eventually I knew what to expect — and so did she — there was always something I forgot to ask. Sometimes, even if I thought I’d heard the answer enough times that I didn’t need to ask it again, a new anesthesiologist or nurse followed a slightly different protocol, and I’d be taken off guard. Because of that, there were questions I wish, in retrospect, that I’d had the presence of mind to ask each and every time.
If you’re taking your child in for outpatient surgery or an invasive test, here are some things you might want to ask – and write down the answers in a notebook you can keep handy.
Before the procedure:
- May I accompany my child into the operating room?
This can make a huge difference for your child and for you. As long as you feel that you can maintain your calm in those circumstances, walking your child into the operating room and staying until he is asleep can contribute tremendously to peace of mind for both of you. If the anesthesia team is comfortable with this, be prepared to wear whatever sterile clothing the hospital requires in the operating room. (Bonus: We kept the large white one-piece operating room suits afterward — they were great for messy projects around the house.)
- How long will my child be away from me?
This is a very different question from “how long does this procedure take?” Often, the doctor executing the procedure answered us only in reference to his portion of the process. If a doctor is, for example, inserting ear tubes, he might answer “15 minutes, tops,” but when you add in the time to get your child to sleep under anesthesia, put in breathing tubes if necessary, and then to bring your child out of anesthesia and back out into the recovery room to see you, the total time might be closer to an hour. The difference is huge when you’re sitting in a waiting room.
- Which specific medications will you be using on my child?
They may be giving your child any number of medications: one or more for anesthesia, antibiotics if infection is a concern, something to combat post-procedure nausea, topical ointments if there is an incision somewhere, or other drugs more specific to this procedure. Knowing will help with troubleshooting if you notice anything unusual once you’re at home. You don’t want to learn the hard way that they opted not to put anti-nausea medicine in the IV.
- Can we choose which arm/leg you use for the IV?
This goes for other lines and cords that may get attached to your child. Often they assume that a child is right-handed and put the IV in the child’s left arm. A left-handed child would find that difficult. My daughter preferred the tiny light they taped to her hand to measure her blood oxygen levels be taped to her toe instead — it was less annoying to her that way.
- What is your Plan B if you are surprised by what you see when you begin the procedure?
There is always the chance that a surgeon or physician will see something once the procedure begins that changes their opinion on the right course of treatment. If the decision needs to be made to do something different, it will help you to know whether or not you’ll be consulted, whether they will send a nurse out to let you know what is happening, or whether the procedure will be put off for another time.
- How do you expect my child to feel once she wakes up?
Some children come out of anesthesia very sleepy and quiet, and some are quite agitated. Your doctor may not be able to predict how your child will react, but she should be able to tell you how much pain or discomfort is likely.
After the Procedure
- Did you see anything that requires follow-up?
Some doctors will want you to make an appointment to see them in their office a week or more after the procedure, which is a long time for a worried parent to wait to hear this answer. They might be waiting for test results, but they can give you a quick overview of what they saw and what they suspect.
- How long will my child feel under-the-weather?
Between the side effects of anesthesia and any pain from incisions or instruments that made their way into your child’s body during the procedure, it would be unusual for your child to be totally back-to-normal quickly. Knowing what might be particularly bothersome will help you take care of your child more easily in the days following a procedure.
- What should my child eat and drink in the next 24 hours?
Your child’s doctor will almost always tell you to stay away from red drinks and Jello so that you can tell the difference between a child throwing up blood and a child throwing up red food. If there are other restrictions, be sure to find out. Some hospitals will issue a standard “bland diet” recommendation, but your child’s doctor may tell you it’s fine to let your child eat his normal diet.
- Under what circumstances do I need to bring my child back to the hospital?
A low grade fever after being under anesthesia is not uncommon, but there are other reactions that your doctor may consider worth checking-on.
- If this is a procedure that your child has had before, was there anything done differently this time compared to the last time?
In the case of my daughter, who repeated the same procedure (endoscopy) many times, it was too easy for us to assume we knew how it went and what would be done. After minimal issues with swallowing after all previous endoscopies, she had very noticeable pain after her next one. When we called the doctor to ask, he mentioned that he’d taken biopsies from much higher in her esophagus than last time. She could feel the difference, even though the doctor hadn’t thought to mention it to us in the recovery room.
- What is the next step?
Even if you feel comfortable waiting until your child’s next office visit to learn what comes next in recovery or treatment, your child will likely want to know much sooner. If she’ll be limited by the procedure she just had, she’ll want to know how long it will take to be back to normal. If he knows that this procedure is one of several he’ll need, he may want to know when the next one might happen. Getting that answer while you’re still in the hospital with the doctor in front of you saves you a volley of phone calls and messages later on.
Even after she’d had more than a dozen procedures under anesthesia, there were always new things I learned about my daughter and her health by asking the right question at the right time. It is impossible to plan for everything, but knowing all the things you might need to know gives you the opportunity to plan for your child’s comfort, watch for the things that raise red flags, and avoid worrying about at least some of the what-ifs.
If you have something to add to this list, please share it in the comments.