What to Say to Someone Before Surgery, as a Friend and as a Doctor

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Whether for medical or cosmetic reasons, going inside the operating room is always an unnerving experience. There are potential risks to take into consideration, alongside varying recovery times.

Here are some comforting words that you could say to someone who’s “going under the knife” to help put their mind at ease and make them feel a little more comfortable.

1. What to Say to Someone Before Surgery as a Friend

Christine Scott-Hudson

Christine Scott-Hudson

Licensed Psychotherapist | Marriage and Family Therapist |
Owner, Create Your Life Studio

Ask them what they are feeling and what would help them feel safer?

Validate their feelings, don’t try to “talk them out” of their feelings. If they are scared, you can affirm that it is scary. Validate what they are feeling first before you offer the other, opposite side. This is when you will offer words that show them what is comforting and safe, and the healing medicine to their distress.

  • Tell them that you will be waiting for them when they get out of the recovery room.
  • Tell them you love them and are picturing them safe and well.
  • Tell them that their body knows how to heal.
  • Tell them that their body has a far greater capacity to heal than they may even realize.
  • Tell them that they are loved.
  • Ask them to visualize the whole surgery experience going well.
  • Have them tell you, from start to finish, what that would look like.
  • Have them tell you, in detail, how check-in will go, pre-op, getting wheeled into surgery, how post-op recovery will go, etc.
  • Have them picture it and really see it going well. Even young children can visualize how they would like their surgery to go and how they would like to feel.
  • Tell them that you will pray for them if that’s in alignment with their beliefs. Most importantly, keep their beliefs and needs in mind over your own.

Charles Blankenship IV

Charles Blankenship

Seasoned Hospital Chaplain | Writer, US Insurance Agents

Why is it difficult to formulate appropriate words to say to a friend or a relative before they undergo a surgical procedure? Although there are many answers, fear of the unknown is a prominent cause.

Although our loved one may have a long-standing relationship with the physician performing the surgery, we do not. We are fully entrusting the life of another to someone we hardly know.

Also, if the physician makes a mistake, not only are we in the dark as we wait in the waiting room, we are powerless to help. These fears often paralyze us from speaking love and care in a time when control is progressively being passed to another.

Have you ever been lost? Maybe on a road trip, your GPS loses signal and you are on a dark curvy road. That sudden realization of not knowing where you are sunk in the pit of your stomach. At that moment you are thinking, how am I going to get out of this? How will I make it without the map? Now, GPS is just an expensive rock on the dashboard of your car!

Our friends and loved ones look to us when times are uncertain. Before surgery, they want to know that you’ll stand by their side to see them to the end of the journey. Unlike the GPS that suddenly loses a signal, you will not suddenly stop or disappear!

Knowing this, what do we say? How do we show up? Let me suggest two ideas that will help you as you begin to think through what to say to someone before they have surgery.

First, whether they tell you or not, your loved one fears isolation. They fear to be alone before, during, and after surgery. Unlike GPS, you will stay connected from beginning to end. After you say goodbye and walk out to the waiting room, your loved one is going to be taken to another room where they will be surrounded by specialists, nurses, and various medical professionals they barely know.

What your loved one needs to know is that you will by their side before and after the surgery

The simple phrase, “I will be here when you get out” instills in your loved one hope, resilience, solidarity, and love.

They need to be told that despite the outcome, you will aid them to the best of your abilities after surgery

Second, your loved one fears abandonment on some level. They may be wondering, will my friends and family still be by my side after surgery? Or they may be thinking, will my loved ones still be there for me if this surgery causes complications?

The sooner you can begin this alignment towards deeper solidarity the better. I would suggest posturing yourself in these ways many months in advance of the surgery.

As you encourage them days before the surgery, the fears of isolation and abandonment will progressively diminish over time.

Jamie Bacharach

Jamie Bacharach

Licensed Medical Acupuncturist | Health Coach | Head of Practice, Acupuncture Jerusalem

Be positive

The effect that positive thinking and feelings can have on an individual heading into surgery cannot be overstated. Relieving tension and giving an individual the strength and courage to help their body through the procedure and recovery process can make all the difference for a positive outcome.

Make sure to tell the person heading into surgery that you care about them, that the procedure will go well, and that you’ll be waiting for them when they wake up.

Make sure they know they are in good hands

Few things are as reassuring to someone heading into surgery as knowing that the surgeon and medical team that will be working on them have dealt with similar cases in the past.

Understanding that a positive outcome is completely achievable and that the surgeon has gotten there under similar circumstances in the past can put a patient at ease and relieve their pre-surgery jitters effectively.

Try to make them laugh

Pre-surgery tension and nerves are a very real phenomenon and can have an impact on the ultimate outcome of a surgery. You can undercut this tension by making a light and appropriate joke that undercuts the nerves and helps the patient to relax their mind and body alike.

Hilary Erickson

Hilary Erickson

Registered Nurse | Owner & Creator, Pulling Curls

When patients are coming in for surgery, there are three things I mainly tell them (along with detailing exactly what will happen and what to expect):

  • It is very normal for patients to be nervous. There is no reason to feel bad about being nervous.
  • If they have any questions or things I could do to help, please don’t hesitate to ask. I want to make them as comfortable as possible.
  • It is much more dangerous to drive to the hospital than it is to have the procedure. I like to remind them how frequently we do it and how good we are at our job. Also, how much we care for each patient, just as I would for a sister or a friend.

Adina Mahalli

Adina-Mahalli

Certified Mental Health Consultant, Enlightened Reality | Relationship Expert, Maple Holistics

Reassurance

Being there emotionally for someone who’s undergoing surgery, no matter how minor, can be a hefty task. Instead of focusing on the things that could go wrong, place an emphasis on the doctor’s expertise and the fact that you’re here for them no matter what.

Something along the lines of “There’s no such thing as minor surgery, anything with the word surgery in it is major but between the doctor’s expertise and my love for you – we got this!”, validates the person undergoing surgery while reassuring them that they’re in safe hands no matter what happens.

John Parrott

John Parrott

Co-founder, Relax Like A Boss

Don’t let them feel down

Imagining a witty and humorous phrase or two to include in what to say before operation or surgery is a great idea. As they say, laughter is the best therapy; keeping the patient in high spirits will help them with their speedy recovery.

There can be some expressive and care-oriented phrases you can put into words to sympathize just like:

“The good Lord will see you through.”

“I know you’re scared today, but you’ll be just fine.”

“This too shall pass.”

2. What to Say to Someone Before Surgery as a Doctor

Dr. Erin Nance

Erin Nance

Hand Surgeon

Undergoing surgery is a significant life event for patients, whether it is a simple carpal tunnel release or a knee replacement. The goal of the pre-operative discussion is to lay out the options, describe the risks and benefits, and help set the expectations for post-surgical recovery to help your patient remain calm and confident. Informed patients are satisfied patients.

Here are some helpful tips to guide patients through the pre-operative surgical discussion.

Discuss the options

A patient should know what are their surgical and nonsurgical options. There may be different ways to perform surgery (open versus arthroscopic).

Is the surgery time-sensitive or can it be scheduled at a later, more convenient time? Our job as surgeons is to present the full spectrum of options and then make a recommendation in the best interest of the patient.

Describe the benefits

Patients need to know how the surgery will positively impact their life. Whether it is to alleviate pain, remove a suspicious mass or is a preventative surgery, patients should know what is the goal of surgery and how will they will benefit from the surgery.

Explain the risks

Taking the time to thoroughly explain the risks of a particular surgery is critical to a patient’s full understanding of surgery and is part of the informed consent process.

There is no surgery that is 100% risk-free. Bleeding, blood clots and infection are some of the more common complications that can occur and should be discussed prior to surgery. There are also more specific risks depending on the type of surgery being performed.

For example, if a patient is undergoing a distal biceps repair, I will quote the current literature and explain that in 3% of cases there is the risk of developing a posterior interosseous nerve palsy.

Just before surgery, a patient will be asked to sign the official consent form which states they understand the risks and benefits of undergoing the procedure.

Layout the scene

A patient should know what will be happening to them on the day of surgery.

Are they going to a hospital or an ambulatory surgery center? Will they go home after surgery or will they be expected to stay in the hospital for a few days? Will they be having general anesthesia or sedation medication? This will help the patient feel more comfortable once they arrive at the surgery center.

Set the expectations

Often times the perception of a successful surgery depends on if a patient’s expectations were met. For example, if a patient breaks their wrist, undergoes surgery and then develops some post-operative stiffness in their wrist, they may be disappointed, even though their wrist went on to heal and they are back to their pre-injury function.

If preoperatively a discussion was had explaining how after trauma and surgery the joint may become stiffer, requiring post-operative physical therapy and understanding that they may never reach a full symmetrical range of motion, then a small deficit in the range of motion after surgery is seen as a normal and common consequence of surgery.

Ask them if they have any questions

This is a discussion. A patient’s questions and concerns should be fully addressed before proceeding with surgery.

I will often ask my patients, “Is there anything I talked about that you didn’t understand?” or “Tell me what concerns you still have about the procedure.”

Patients should leave the office feeling confident that they have made the right decision for themselves.

Have something written out that they can take home with them

There is a lot of information presented during these pre-operative surgical discussions.

I find it helpful to give the patients a detailed form that outlines all the logistics of the surgery, specific pre-operative instructions, such as no eating or drinking after midnight, and layout what the post-operative period will be like (will they need crutches, pain medication, timing of the post-operative office visit, etc.).

This way they can go home and digest the information and be as well prepared as possible for a successful surgery.

Dr. Alex Trevatt

Alex Trevatt

Plastic Surgery Resident | Co-founder, Medibuddy

Anyone who has undergone a surgical procedure will know that the period before surgery can be a particularly stressful time. Knowing what to say to someone before surgery is difficult, especially for friends and family who are often just as worried as the patient.

Below are some things to say to someone before their surgical procedure.

Surgery is often less risky than you think

Significant advances have been made in surgical and anesthetic safety over the last 20 years. Of course, surgery is not without risk, however, in healthy patients, the risks of a general anesthetic are very low – similar to crossing the road.

We will know if you are waking up

One of the biggest fears of patients having a general anesthetic is that they will wake up during surgery. Many people have heard horror stories of people waking up during a procedure and not being able to move or talk to alert the surgeon.

The chances of this happening are incredibly small and even if you do start to wake up, the anesthetist will pick it up on their monitoring equipment and give you another dose of the general anesthetic. This will all happen before you are anywhere near regaining consciousness.

Don’t drink milk on the morning of surgery

If you are having a general anesthetic, you will be told that you shouldn’t eat for 6 hours before surgery but that you can drink up until 2 hours before surgery. What many people don’t realize is that this only applies to clear fluids.

Thick fluids such as milk count as food and shouldn’t be drunk for 6 hours beforehand. I cannot tell you how many surgical procedures I’ve had to delay because the patient has had their morning coffee with milk before coming in!

We change you into a gown for a reason

Many people ask why we change them into the unflattering hospital gowns before surgery. It’s actually for two reasons –firstly to minimize the risk of infection (you might be carrying bacteria on your normal clothes) and secondly because surgery is messy and you won’t thank us if we ruin your designer jeans!

Dr. Chris Walton

Chris Walton

Ophthalmologist | Founder, Walton Vision

Discuss the surgery day in detail with the patient and try to make him or her feel totally at ease

I convey that I’ll be there every step of the way and will take care of them during the whole process. With eye surgery, we can tell the patient that it is relatively painless and that they will be very comfortable throughout the whole procedure.

Basically, we try to convey that it will be a pleasant experience with a life-changing outcome so that the patient will hopefully be looking forward to the surgery.