As many of you know three weeks ago I had major neuro-surgery. This is my second big surgery (my first was June, 2020) for an advanced cholesteatoma. This is a non-cancerous growth in the inner ear. While it is benign, it does grow and spread. If left untreated it will spread to the brain. Unfortunately mine was very progressed and took a while to be picked up. It had eaten away at two of my hearing bones (one is left intact). You can read more of the back story here.
This condition is life-long and the disease does often come back. This was what happened in my case after my first surgery. I also required reconstruction work in order to make managing this more easier (less invasive ongoing treatments). Moreover we were also hoping to help preserve my last bone of hearing - I have significant and complicated hearing loss and vertigo.
As you can imagine this surgery is significant and healing is required both from the external incision to my head as well as the internal work. In terms of the emotional side and the grief, anger, trauma of all of this as well - its a work in progress. There is nothing I could have done to prevent this - except for picking it up sooner. No amount of life style changes could have stopped this. However how I tackled this surgery and recovered from it were in my control.
I did not prepare well for my surgery the first time I underwent this. There were numerous reasons for this. We had just come out of the first big level four lockdown and I was still pretty raw postpartum from Ray (he was 6 months old). I do not think I even really allowed myself time to think about how serious the surgery was or how what I would even need. I was in firm survival mode and with no family help at all to call on just boxed through. This was also underpinned by so much of the ongoing struggle to put myself first - even after major surgery!! I talk more about this in my blog 'My Third Postpartum Journey' which I shared just before this second round of surgery.
I lead a busy, active life. I have three small boys and a business which requires huge days and high-level creative work. I do love my life. It is hard, challenging and relentless at times but I love pushing myself in all areas of my life - this surgery was going to halt all of this (and it did). I have done my best to focus on is what I can do to recover faster to be able to get back to what is required in day-to-day parenting and running a business.
As I talked about in my previous blog, I prorisited my physical strength prior to surgery. Being physically strong would help give me the stamina in order for my body to focus on healing. It would help my overall recovery and support my immune system. It also helped to train my mind physically. This is different from mental wellbeing. I used many techniques to work through the intense physical pain of the surgery from this - including my pain box which I had inked on my arm prior hand. This has also helped me get back to activity faster as well. I am still early days with this but I know all the work I did prior hand has helped significantly - very much like preparing for birth and a baby.
As you would expect nourishing food is absolutely crucial to recovery. I went at this with a laser focus. I made food made in advance including soup and gummies. The photo below is making up a huge batch of my 'Mama Bear's Chicken Soup' from my Baby & Toddler Cookbook. I also took food with me to the hospital so I would have what I needed straight after - including tinned fish which was my first meal.
I am not a big drinker at all. I would be lucky to have a drink once a month. However, I have not drunk since September. I won't be drinking for at least another six weeks, possibly longer.
Eating was extremely difficult. I shared a little bit of this on social media. It was last time but due to the slightly different surgery this time was more challenging. I had some facial muscles cut and used in the reconstruction. This meant that I could hardly open my mouth and needed lots of soft foods. I often talk about fish when it comes to recovery and I had a lot of this as it was nice and soft and packed full of iron, omegas and B12.
Three weeks in am now able to eat a broader range of textures. Still not a lot of hard foods. I struggle a little with just the sensation of appetite. This can go for me when really stressed. I am having easy, nutritious foods with focus on gut health. Lots of recipes from all my books but especially my Baby & Toddler Cookbook which has a whole section of recovery recipes and The Nourished Bump (the white bean soup in here has also been a top fav of mine) - a time when nutrition is of its upmost importance. I am taking a probiotic and have done since the first day of surgery to help combat the heavy antibiotics I have needed to be on and the general anesthetic. Our cookie mixes have also been well used - hard to beat a warm cookie from the oven and these have flaxseeds and almonds for more good omegas!
Sleep & Fatigue
This has been one of the biggest difference makers for me. When I think back to my first surgery and how little (none) time I gave myself or asked for - it feels absolutely insane. This surgery literally involves having my head cut open - to think that I could parent in any capacity after this let alone recover well is ludicous. Yet I didn't know how to do this the first time. Not having any family involved meant I had no one to suggest I needed it or help make it happen. My recovery and ultimately my ability to parent, work and live life suffered badly.
Is it fair that do not have this help? No. Do I know how much I have missed out on - just in basic parenting alone without it. Of course. Do I know it has impacted my ability to be able to put my needs first? Yes.
Let alone the social expectations of mothering.
Being away from my kids and even making that decision in advance was incredibly hard. But I NEEDED it. And it has made a HUGE difference. I was away for 12 days in the end. It took a week for me to even be sleeping through the night - the pain is always significantly worse at night and it is also very uncomfortable sleeping. I knew this would be the case going in.
Not only was this time essential for sleep and rest but it gave space for me to process some of the huge emotions and life changes that the surgery brought. I am sharing this because I know how HARD it is for mothers to do this, even for a night - regardless of surgery or not.
Managing fatigue ongoing is still a work in progress. I am getting a lot of brain fog still and just general fatigue. It will be a while before I am 'back' to what I was. I say this carefully that's not what I want my mind set on; just like when navigating the postpartum period...which really is for life right! There will be a new pace of life ahead, and that's what I am working on.
Getting Outside & Slow Movement
Being outside is everything for me. I feel a greater sense of calm and connection when I am. Running is my absolute vice and it has been extremely challenging to suddenly lose this. I know even after all my babies it worked for me to be out and about even just for a little bit. To do this post surgery meant using a wheelchair which has been a humbling experience in itself. However the benefit of a little bit of sun, fresh air & seeing the ocean were everything.
I have finally had the packing taken out of my ear so and am just a little bit stronger. I am able to do a bit more gentle activity now but am doing so under the guidance of my trainer and physio. Yet again this is possible due to the strength work I did do prior hand to enable a faster, safer return. It is still going to take some time. Running I will be able to give a go but very light and watching the weather too. Prior to surgery I was able to comfortably run for about an hour and half. It will take me some time to get back there but I will take anything.
This has also been a huge challenge for me. I knew that this would be the case as well and tried to plan many safety nets for this. To suddenly (and unfairly) lose many coping strategies was going to be a huge trigger for me. This time of year is challenging at the best of times too. I am really grateful for those close to me who have held space for this for me and been on the phone and messenger when I really needed it. I also pre-booked a session with my therapist for this week just been when I thought it would be the hardest time (which turns out to be the case). It helped immensely and I would encourage anyone who is thinking of this to do so - I know it is really, really, really hard.
Slowly Getting There
I still have a long way to go. Adjusting to different pace of life, lower workload and managing the fatigue which comes with parenting three active boys. My body is still healing so I need to honor that as much as possible. Taking a 'month off' work was also helpful. As a business owner it is very hard to totally step away. It is also my purpose. Once through those first hard 12 days, I have done little bits of work that I can pace out. This has helped me mentally a lot. I will be back to some consultations on the 20th of December and working on a reduced load over the Christmas period.
Christmas itself is fairly low-key and am doing my best to make it still special for the boys without adding a lot of pressure. I have really enjoyed doing our 12-Days of Xmas with you all and sharing lots of great Christmas recipes and tips for this time. Thank you all for your understanding and support - both in this time but also as a small business it truly means the world.
I hope some of these tips and ideas also help any readers also facing significantly health challenges, life changes and even preparing to conceive and have a baby. Learning to focus on what we do have in our control, especially when things are so out of our control can make a big difference.
xx Dr Julie