Saturday, July 22, 2017

Post-op care: Are there any taboos left?

I recently went to be with my sister, A, after she had surgery on her spine. She lives alone, and even though her daughters were with her during most of her hospital stay, she had to be on her own once she was discharged. Her doctor had assured her that she would be up on her feet within days of her surgery, but she would still be hampered in her movements, and couldn’t drive for a month. She was considering a stay at a convalescent home, but I told her I could stay for about a week just to help her out.

I’m clueless when it comes to post-operative care, or even postpartum care, for that matter. In this part of the world, especially among the Chinese, it’s traditional to hire someone for the one-month confinement period to look after both mother and baby. There used to be all kinds of taboos surrounding childbirth - no showering or washing of the hair for the mother, eating a whole chicken every day, and eating lots of ginger in every form to get rid of the “wind”. The Chinese believe that new mothers have to stay away from all kinds of “cooling” foods, because she has to build up her strength, and that includes  avoiding a lot of fruits and vegetables.

Being the Western-educated, emancipated woman that I was was, I ignored most of these taboos after childbirth. I showered immediately, even though I made sure to dry my hair thoroughly. I drank orange juice, cold orange juice, to the horror of my roommate at the hospital. I tried to eat as much of the chicken cooked with loads of ginger and rice wine that my mother made for me, every other day, but still snuck in fruits.

I didn’t want the services of a “confinement lady”, because I felt that I was able enough to look after myself and my baby. I did okay because I had my mother and mother-in-law cooking for me, and a housemaid doing all the household chores. I didn’t observe all the rest of the “confinement” taboos, and now, more than 30 years later, perhaps I’m paying the price of not listening. Because when it’s raining and cold, my bones start to ache.

Today, I just heard that the services of a “confinement lady” can cost more than $5,000. For a month. And they are in just as much demand, because so few of them are left who have the know-how, and they are booked months in advance.

Anyway, back to post-op care. Like I said, I haven’t the faintest idea of what to cook for someone who’s just had surgery. Friends suggested I get a certain fish which is supposed to help in the healing of wounds. And A said you’re supposed to avoid ginger if you don’t want keloids to form. Who knew?

I nixed the idea of that fish, because even if I got my hands on it, I wouldn’t know how to prepare it. Another friend said I should get some free range chickens and extract its essence. Oka-a-a-y, I thought, that’s doable. So I trotted to my neighborhood Chinese medicine shop and explained to them what I needed. In the old days, the "sinseh"  or Chinese physician would open his little drawers and extract this herb and that herb, and wrap the whole heap in some paper. Now, they just whipped everything out all pre-packed and told me to boil them with some chicken.

A looked remarkable strong and alert when I popped into her hospital room the day before she was discharged. Apart from some soreness from the incision and stiffness in her movements, no one would have known that she had just had eight hours of major surgery. Getting discharged was a long, drawn out affair. Once again, I take my hat off to all hospital staff, from the nurses to the pharmacists to even the concierge. They were helpful and cheerful and just all round nice people. Which helped.

Interestingly, the hospital is owned by the Seventh Day Adventist Church, so the food they served is totally vegetarian, and needless to say, there is no coffee or tea either. A had gamely said she wouldn’t mind the vegetarian food, but when it came, didn’t look too appetizing. So friends and daughter kindly made her meat congee every day, and she had it for a week until it was “coming out of my ears!”

Once we got home, A was most relieved to be back and sleeping on her own bed. She had packed her refrigerator, a behemoth, to the brim. I swear she could have opened a mini market with the amount of food she stocked. We prepared simple, nourishing meals, and even though she normally makes do with fruit shakes, I made sure she ate well to gain some weight and build back her strength. So we made the chicken soup with the herbs, fried some salmon, made more bone broth and had noodle soup. She didn’t have ginger, and avoided all the food that’s supposed to be toxic for post-op patients, like shellfish and beef. We didn’t even use fish sauce in our cooking because we weren’t sure whether the fish used would be toxic. She happily poured in the oyster sauce though, because we figured “how many oysters would they use anyway in the sauce?”

And so in the week I was with A, I drove her for a couple of physiotherapy sessions where the physiotherapist said she was recovering remarkably well, especially for her age (no I’m not supposed to tell). It definitely helps to be fit and active (and not overweight) to get back on your feet faster. Her surgeon was also pleased with her progress.

Now, three weeks after her operation, A is out and about, keeping up with her daughter who’s visiting her. In fact, when we spoke yesterday, she said that the daughter and boyfriend were taking a nap after their outing, whereas she felt fine.

I still don’t know what needs to be done after an operation, and exactly what taboos there are. With modern science, the doctors will say eat anything you want, and start being active again as soon as you can, whereas the old wives will tut-tut this advice, and say stay in bed and avoid all the toxic food. Afeend probably don’t shower!