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How To Survive Brain Surgery: All The Non-Medical Questions You Wanted To Ask

I've started noticing a lot of people are finding my blog through brain surgery & Chiari searches. This post for those people who are about to go through brain surgery and a reviews of products I found helpful as I recovered from my decompression surgery. If there is a question you have that I haven't answered about life before/after my surgery, ask it in the comments and I will try to answer it as best as I can. Please keep in mind that I am not a doctor (blood scares me) and my answers are based on my experience with surgery for Chiari - your experience will be different.

Do you have to shave your head for brain surgery?

It depends. For me, and my particular surgery, they shaved the back of my head. Before I knew I was going to have surgery, my hair was shoulder length, full-bodied (hello, frizz), and a curly mop. My surgeon told me, that if I left my hair how it was, the top layer would cover all the post-surgery dressings and the scar wouldn't be noticeable. Being who I am, I took this as an opportunity to chop about 12+ inches off. Post surgery, when I couldn't wash my hair on my own, my "let's go as short as possible" cutting spree paid off. It was SO much easier to care for the surgical area without having my life-of-its-own hair in the way. Several times my mother told me cutting my hair was the best thing I could have done.

Although my surgery didn't require me to cut my hair, I would highly recommend it. I cut my locks off the week before surgery so I would have sometime to figure out how to style it later. When people at worked asked what spurred the change, it was a way to transition into "oh, I'm having brain surgery next week" which isn't an easy thing to share with people. More on breaking the news to people later.

The Hospital- What do you pack for the stay?

I packed a hospital bag. It had everything I thought I could possibly need while in the hospital for 3 to 7 days. We never touched it. The only thing I needed was a set of clothes to put on for the worst car ride of my life (more on that below). Everything else, I asked the nurses for. At one point, I even asked for undergarments because I didn't want to get anything nasty on my personal belongings. Plus, I wasn't allowed to have any personal possessions, besides Bertie, with my while I was in the Neuro ICU.

Should I have anything special at home for after surgery?

Every person is different; each day I found I needed something different. The first day, it was a heating pad. The second, I needed ear plugs because I was extremely sensitive to sounds. By the third, I was just starting to feel like a person again and I wanted to start moving more. I would have pillowcases and towels you don't mind getting stained on hand. I don't think any explanation is needed there...

For that worst car ride that you will take you home, pack as many pillows as possible into the car. Something I have found useful, even this far post-surgery, are special Chiari pillows. One is meant to help you directly after surgery; aptly called the "Pain in the Neck". The other is for normal days. I use both pillows daily. The Pain in the Neck is great to have when you need additional support when sitting up; think of it as a giant well-made travel pillow. My mother purchased them for me in August and I recommend them to anyone who is having brain surgery. I take my "pain in the neck" pillow with me every time I fly. It annoys whomever is sitting next to me but I am comfortable and I don't worry about rough landings because I have extra padding. The reassurance is worth the price-tag.

What is a great get well package/gift I could send to someone who is having surgery?

I think this really depends on the person having surgery. Food is always helpful. Consider placing orders at local delivery places to have dinner delivered at a set time. Don't send anything to the hospital. It will probably get lost in the shuffle and there are lots of restrictions on what is allowed. Cards are great. Opening them gave me something to do when I couldn't just sit there and watch any more tv. If you are going to send a game, toy and/or something that requires any kind of movement; keep in mind that post-surgery movement is very limited. Standing up on my own was a huge accomplishment; so was walking to the front desk of our complex. If my mom hadn't been staying with us, someone to run errands or to sit with me while Joel went out, would have been extremely helpful. After my mom left and Joel went back to work, having someone around during the day would have been a great gift. I got rather bored being at home with limited mobility.

How Do you tell people you're having surgery?

I only had 3 weeks between finding out I needed surgery and upgrade day. I told my supervisors first and they already knew that surgery was a probable option. From there, I hunted down HR so I could file the proper paperwork under FMLA, disability and so on.

At this point, only my main family members and key coworkers knew and I hadn't put anything on twitter or facebook. I put together a list of people that I needed to tell before posting anything anywhere and started telling who I could in-person. The standard "I'm going to be out of the office for an extended period of time for medical reasons" led most people to assume that I was pregnant. Lesson learned there.

The main lesson I learned was tell people what you are comfortable with. You have different types of relationships and not all relationships require an explanation. With some people, I just wasn't comfortable explaining my absence - and they didn't need the details. With others, I was upfront and they saw the fear. The words I picked depended solely on my comfort level. I used my blog and twitter as a release for some details I had trouble verbalizing.

Can I see the scar?

I think my scar is kinda nifty, so I don't mind showing people. But please don't touch my head. The surgery removed the back portion of my skull and I am, now, extremely protective of that area. I let people who need to touch my head (e.g. hair stylist, doctors, acupuncturist) know, before they touch me, that the back of my head is going to feel different so they don't freak out.