When Your Child Needs Surgery


Both of my kids have had surgery within the past 12 months–an unfortunate distinction for sure. It was scary, but both surgeries were for non life threatening conditions. Lots of kids require surgery for a variety of reasons, so here are our stories in case you find yourself in a similar situation.

1. My Daughter’s Cleft Palate Surgery

When my daughter (known as Lil Sis in the blogging world) was born we went to her one month well-baby visit expecting the pediatrician marvel at her growth and get the customary pat on the back that I normally got: “you’re doing a good job, mom.”

The doctor felt inside Lil Sis’ mouth and said he thought he thought he felt what’s called a submucous cleft palate–a portion in the soft part of the roof of your mouth where, for whatever reason, the tissue and muscles hadn’t fused like they should. This left a gap in her palate, which could make learning to speak difficult since air could escape through her nose when trying to make certain sounds. (We found out much later that her submucous cleft palate was genetically inherited from me).

A few weeks later, an appointment with a plastic surgeon specializing in cleft palate repair at Fletcher Allen Health Care confirmed, my perfect little girl did have a submucous cleft palate and recommended surgery to ensure her speech would not be affected. The surgery would be done when she was between 9 and 12 months of age, and would require a breathing tube since the surgery was in her airway and there was the possibility of bleeding (!!?!).

It was terrifying. The thought of putting my child under anesthesia and having surgery that affected her airway was dreadful and overwhelming. Her first surgery was scheduled when she was 11 months old, but we had to cancel because she had a cold with a fever that morning, which also happened to be Big Bro’s third birthday. It made for a lousy day.

We rescheduled again for early May, but once again had to cancel because of yet another cold. This time we canceled over the phone, not wanting to go through the ordeal of making her fast, get up early to drive to the hospital and wait for an hour before they confirmed that she was too sick for surgery.

The third time was the charm. We drove to the hospital on a June morning and checked into the outpatient surgery area even though she would be required to spend the night. We had to change her into a little hospital gown and socks while we waited for various nurses to check her temperature and listen to her heart and lungs. They explained the procedure for the 10th time, and gave us an anesthesia mask for her to play with.

Then it was time.

I suited up into scrubs, booties, and a hairnet and carried her into the operating room. She sat on my lap as they administered the first anesthesia through the mask. She fell asleep and I had to lay her on the the operating table and leave. My heart was in my shoes as a nurse led me out and made absurd small talk about how pretty the drive must have been to the hospital from the Champlain Islands today. I was in no mood, and told him so as politely as I could that my baby was in surgery and I didn’t care what the weather was outside.

an operating room
an operating room

My husband and I, joined by a dear family friend, waited for over two hours with the hospital buzzer in our pocket. The buzzer was supposed to ring when she was almost out of surgery, and it seemed to be taking forever. We chatted, we went to the gift shop, we had a snack in the cafeteria. We played on our phones and asked at the front desk for updates since nothing was happening with our buzzer.

Finally, after about 2.5 hours we could finally go see her in recovery. She looked so tiny in that hospital bed. She still had a bunch of tubes connected to her and her arms were in splints so she couldn’t put her fingers in her mouth and damage her stitches. The surgeon told us that everything went well. Lil Sis had a hard time coming out of anesthesia though. Her breathing sounded raspy and the nurses gave her some kind of steroid to help. I rocked her and sang to her for hours as she alternated between sleeping and crying.

After spending many hours in the recovery room we finally were cleared to go to the pediatric ward for the night. I was able to sleep in the same bed as her overnight since she was never a fan of the crib. She was still hooked up to IV fluids. The night wasn’t restful as nurses kept coming in to check vitals. We were woken early in the morning by a team of medical students on their observation rounds. I requested that the nurses unhook her from her IV from time to time so she could play in the toy room. In order to go home she had to eat and drink. Getting her off the IV fluids let her still be the active, playful baby she was, and made her hungry enough to take a bite or two of hospital pudding and juice to prove she was well enough to come home– 36 hours after we had checked in.

Back at home she was on over the counter pain medication could only eat soft foods for two weeks. She was supposed to wear the arm braces too, though we were more lax with that.  She healed well and it’s now been almost a year since the  surgery. She did 5 months of speech therapy and is now a talkative 2 year old. I’m happy that she won’t need another cleft repair surgery, though some kids do need multiple surgeries.

2. My Son’s Ear Tube Surgery

My son (known as “Big Bro” in the blogging world) turned 4 this year. He had his fair share of ear infections since he was a baby, but not enough that the pediatrician was ever really concerned. The infections always responded to antibiotics and his speech developed very well. This past winter–the never ending, severely cold Arctic vortex winter–he developed a persistent double ear infection that didn’t respond to two different rounds of antibiotics. We were referred to the pediatric ear, nose, throat (ENT) doctor at Fletcher Allen in early April. His ears were no longer infected but were still full of thick fluid that was causing moderate hearing loss. Poor boy was constantly asking us, “What did you say?” and sidling up next to us and tilting an ear towards us so he could hear.

The ENT scheduled us for ear tubes in May with the caveat that we could cancel if Big Bro’s ears were clear by the time his pre-op appointment came around. They didn’t, so just as we had with my daughter almost a year earlier, we arrived at the hospital bright and early one morning in May. I wasn’t as nervous this time because I knew what to expect once we were checked in. I also have known many kids who got ear tubes. It’s a very quick procedure and doesn’t require a breathing tube!

My biggest fear, other than having my child put under, was how to explain the whole thing to Big Bro without scaring him. Lil Sis was way too young to explain surgery to, but Big Bro had to be told something. The preregistration nurse advised me to just use simple terms. We just told him that the doctor was “going to fix his ears so he could hear better.” That was enough for him: informative but not scary, and hearing better was something we were all looking forward to.

At the hospital the pre-op nurses were very good with him. There were also about 4 other little boys there waiting to get ear tubes which helped with anxiety. The nurse gave Big Bro hospital pajamas and socks. He was given a mask and got to decorate it with stickers and pick a scent (he picked strawberry) to make breathing into the mask more fun. Then he was given an iPad to play with. Once again after the usual army of nurses came in to check his temperature and listen to his heart and lungs (one of them even recognized me from the year before), then it was time to suit up. Big Bro played iPad on the bed, while I walked in front and into the operating room. He put on the mask while still playing iPad, then suddenly he was out with his finger still on the iPad screen. I was escorted back to the waiting area.


Big Bro's Doggie gets a hospital bracelet too
Big Bro’s Doggie gets a hospital bracelet too

This time we just had time to wait in a little room for a few minutes until the doctor to come tell us that it was over, went well, and we could go see him.  I went to the hospital pharmacy to drop off a prescription for ear drops and when I returned Big Bro was already awake and drinking juice with my husband– little wobbly, but in generally good spirits. We gave him a new toy as a reward, and took him out to eat (he had fasted since dinner the day before and we fasted in solidarity). That afternoon he was back home and acting normally. His hearing is much improved too. My husband and I can’t get away with private conversations in the car anymore, he hears everything!

In a nutshell, having a child undergo surgery is scary, but be sure you have a support network of family or friends, ask any and all questions you can think of to the doctors and nurses, and trust that it will all be fine.

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Sandra O'Flaherty
I am stay at home mom to two wonderful kids. I grew up in Vermont, but it wasn't until I left this great state for a few years that I truly appreciated what a wonderful place it is. My husband is also a Vermonter, so we are happy to be able to raise our kids here surrounded by a large extended family. In fact, we like it so much that we bought the house next door to his parents, and my mom lives in an apartment on our property. We enjoy playing outdoors and poking around our little "gentleman's farm" that we started in 2010. We have chickens, goats, a work-in-progress vegetable garden, fruit trees, and we tap our own maple trees for syrup. I have a BA in environmental studies and an MA in urban planning. I try to keep a toe in the professional world that I left when my oldest was born by serving on our local Planning Commission. You can learn more about me and my passion for this planet we call home on my blog: Mama of Ma'at



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