an adult's guide to surviving a tonsillectomy

Getting my tonsils removed is one of the more important things that has happened to me over the last few years. The event helped me make some big decisions to improve my quality of life and showed me that my relationship was a good one (more on this later). I was leaving work months ago now and a group of students asked me over to relate the details of having-had-my-tonsils-out-as-an-adult. It occurred to me that this could be an eminently practical post and, like most people, I enjoy giving other people advice.

What to Buy 

  • If you're of the persuasion, scented candles can help amuse one of your senses while everything else seems to hurt.
  • Reusable gel packs with nice cloth covers to lay over your throat. Get at least three so you can continue to rotate them out and back into the freezer when they get warm.
  • For dairy imbibers, I would strongly recommend whole milk so you don't starve (the legendary dairy mucus is worth it for the liquid food).
  • Any real foods you can tolerate that don't require much chewing or effort swallowing. Ice cream is not ideal because its frozen nature means you can't swallow it right away. You want to avoid anything that requires you to move your tongue much.
  • Some comfortable pajamas, if you don't have them already.

Before Surgery

  • Obligatory: follow all of your doctor's instructions.
  • Take out any earrings/other body jewelry at home. I made the mistake of trying to take out my ear cartilage piercings at the hospital and it was stressful. 
  • Do your laundry and clean your living space! You won't be up to it again for a while.
  • Get a stopwatch app on your phone for taking your pain medication. 
  • Store up some amusements. I was, unfortunately, too nauseous for most of the first week to do anything except look at my phone for a few minutes at a time. In retrospect, audio-books would have been an option, but I didn't think of that. Get an OverDrive account and check out a few titles.

At the Hospital

I had my tonsillectomy at Boston Medical Center and the whole process was quite uneventful. I arrived in the morning and did not wait long until I was brought to a room and changed into a gown and some rubber bottomed sock/slippers. If you're a woman, you'll have to take a pregnancy test before the surgery. I was wheeled into the OR and they asked me a few friendly questions and then I lost consciousness. I awoke in the same room where I was prepped before surgery and felt decidedly out of it. When the nurse asks you if you're comfortable, make sure you ask for more pain medication until you are. You want to be able to drink some water and feel moderately alright for the drive home. There was a brief period of a few hours after my surgery when I felt like this wouldn't be so bad after all...

What to Expect During Recovery

I was a terrible Googler before my surgery. I read all the horror stories and was quite convinced that I would cough too hard, hack up a blood clot and die that first night.

This did not happen. I did, however, stay in bed for two whole weeks.  Not "sick in bed but maybe also going to see a movie or stop at Target to finally get that plastic bin for the dog food you've been meaning to get for months" but actually stuck in bed. Good luck doing anything while on that much pain medication.

Judging by my own experience, you should expect a lot of pain. I was lucky to have never experienced that much pain in my life and have not encountered anything like it since. It only gets worse a few days after surgery because of inflammation and your lack of intravenous pain medication. I seriously doubt that any adult would be able to tough out the recovery without prescription pain medication. Children are often able to get through recovery with ibuprofen, but I went through a whole bottle of roxicodone and had to get a second one (and that was starting with a conservative dose and finding it was not enough). It is very important to have a helper while you're recovering because you won't be able to 1) talk to make the phone call or 2) drive to pick up the physical prescription necessary to get this controlled drug. It tasted very bad and made me nauseous-- definitely fill the prescription for nausea medication if you're given one (or ask for one).

You'll want to use an app to keep track of your pain med dosing. You do not want to miss a dose because the consistent dosing is what keeps the pain at bay. You also don't want to accidentally take too much. You'll likely end up watching the time tick down on your phone.

Frozen gel packs placed on your throat will greatly help with the pain. I had a constant rotation. The pain medication alone was not enough relief.

Three things you may not expect: 

  1. Your tongue will be very sore.
  2. Your uvula will be very swollen. 
  3. The hardest part of recovery is having starved for two weeks.
The sore tongue lingers for weeks after surgery and makes it difficult to eat. Any food that you get for recovery should be things you don't have to manipulate with your tongue much. I mostly drank whole milk, a bit of apple sauce, and then VERY mushy pasta covered with melted butter for extra calories. Mashed potatoes would serve as well.

The swollen uvula means that you feel as though there's something caught in your throat at all times-- you'll try to swallow it first, but then realize, in a drugged haze, that it is your uvula. It can make you feel like you're choking on something when you lay down to sleep, so you might want to have plenty of pillows handy in case you want to sleep on an incline or sitting up.

Lack of food is what made the recovery period two weeks long. I weaned myself off the pain medication in the middle of the second week. I knew it was the right thing to do and I did not want to become dependent on it. You will still have pain, but you get tired of the haze and your inability to do anything while on the medication. Stopping it gave me a very bad headache, and it was tempting to just take another dose, but it had to be done. Eating was still difficult and it was hard to motivate myself to eat so I couldn't do much but lay in bed as I was starving. I lost 10lb and felt like I'd never be able to make up the lost calories. The next month was an exhausting time.

Silver Lining

One student I spoke to said that a previous surgery had made him fall in love with his wife again. Another said that a surgery helped her see just how devoted her husband is to her. I was a perpetually single person who had started a relationship with someone a few months before and when I saw him washing my dishes (unasked) I knew that this was something special. Thanks, Stephen. 

Also didn't get a serious cold for more than a year afterwards. 

TL;DR

Have a helper. Buy some freezable gel packs. Lots of pain. 10/10 would do again. One of the best decisions I've ever made. Occasionally wish I'd asked to have my adenoids out.

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