By Dr. John Petty, Pediatric Surgeon for Brenner Children’s Hospital

Surgery! Parents react to the news that their child will need an operation with a wide range of emotions, but let’s face it, no one is happy to hear the “S” word when it comes to their child. Moms and dads would have an operation a thousand times over if it could spare their child from needing an operation at all. Being prepared can help manage the stress of an inherently stressful time. How can you get ready if your child needs an operation?

Not everything that needs an operation is scheduled in advance. That “GI bug” turns out to be appendicitis. The “sprained elbow” after falling off the monkey bars is actually a broken arm. No one ever scheduled appendicitis or injury. If your child has an urgent surgical condition, it is OK that you are running on adrenaline. Every parent does. Take a deep breath. Call friends and family who care about you and your child– they can help with the details. When illness and injury interrupt, talk to the people caring for your child, and above all, talk to your child.

If your child is at a hospital that only takes care of children, this can relieve you of the stress of wondering, “Have they seen this before? Do they have the right people and equipment? Is the operating room ready for a child like mine? Can I trust these doctors and nurses to care for my child?” Think about where your child will be treated in an accident or emergency, now – before it happens.

Not every operation is unexpected. Some operations can be put on the calendar, so you have some time to get yourself and your child ready. The most important thing you can do to prepare for surgery is to develop trust. Trust between a parent and surgeon. Trust between a child and surgeon. Trust between a parent and child. Trust that surgery is the right thing to do. Trust that even though it is a little scary, surgery is a good thing because it will take care of your child’s problem.

How do you build this trust? Everyone is different. You know yourself and your child better than anyone, and you know what it will take to trust that you are ready for surgery. Talk to your child’s surgeon during the clinic appointment. If you have a long list of questions, ask them all– twice if you need to. Some children have questions that they want to ask, and some children are shy around doctors. Everyone should feel free to enter the conversation. Your surgeon should explain the operation in terms that you and your child can understand. Your surgeon should discuss risks, benefits, and recovery as well as invite your questions. Write things down.

After the appointment, take some time with your child to talk things over. Reassure your child that it is normal to be a little frightened, but things will be OK. Sometimes it builds trust to see the surgery area, check out the waiting room, or meet some of the surgical nurses. Find out about pediatric anesthesia, pediatric nursing, and the range of pediatric subspecialists available at the hospital. At Brenner Children’s Hospital, we have all pediatric-trained staff to help your family during surgery.

Sometimes it builds trust to talk to other families who have a child who has already been down this road. Sometimes it builds trust to discuss things with your pediatrician. Sometimes you think of questions you forgot to ask, and you need to talk to your surgeon again. Sometimes it builds trust just to have some time with your family. You’ll know what you and your child need to be prepared for surgery.

The day of operation is a mix of anticipation, excitement, nerves, and nausea. Your day may start quite early. Your child will be hungry, needing to keep an empty stomach for anesthesia. Parent and child alike are not at their best. Think about your child’s operation like other big events in your life– music performances, job interviews, weddings, childbirth. Trust that it will go well. While your child is in the operating room, you will be in the waiting room, where time takes a different pace. All estimates of surgical times are approximations. Just because things may be taking longer, doesn’t mean that they are going poorly. At Brenner Children’s Hospital, you will receive updates in the waiting room while your child is in surgery. Your surgeon will give you a more detailed review once your child’s operation is over.

Relief is seeing your child waking up safely in the recovery room. The recovery room nurses will help your child make the transition from the operating room to home. They can answer your questions about post-operative care, and they will give you written instructions and a follow-up appointment.

If you want to find out more about how to prepare for your child’s operation, take a look at the document “Getting your child ready for surgery.” To view the document, click here.

For more information about pediatric surgery or Dr. Petty, visit