Preparing a Child for Heart Surgery

Any surgery is a stressful event, but even more so for a child. Open-heart surgery, although a serious operation, can bring families closer. Parents sometimes do not know how to prepare themselves for this big event – emotions run high but the sick child must still be comforted and reassured.

The moment a child is to be taken into the operating theatre is extremely scary for all involved. The medical staff should communicate regularly with parents and family members so as to ensure they are up to date with the child’s condition. Young children require more preparation for surgery and it is not uncommon for parents to accompany their child into the operating room until they are sedated.

In the case of preschool or nursery children, there are six developmental characteristics that will affect their preparatory surgery procedure:

  • Sensory perception: Sight, sound, smell, taste and feel. A good way of explaining the reason for surgery to young children is to use positive examples of how the surgery will help them have a better future.
  • Egocentric condition: Children tend to be narcissists and assume people know how they are feeling, so it is important to ask them where it hurts.
  • Emphasis on the obvious: A child may be frightened by something as simple as the noise of a machine, so distracting them is a good way of keeping them calm.
  • Lack of awareness of intentions: Young children may not understand that a doctor performing painful treatments is doing so for their own good. So before treatment commences, the doctor should explain his good intentions to the child.
  • Skewed sense of time: Children process the idea of time differently to adults, therefore when explaining to the child how long they will be in hospital, phrases such as “only two more days in the hospital after your sister comes to visit”, rather than “you will spend five days in hospital” should be used.
  • Cause and effect: Parents should talk to their children to find out whether they link bad behaviour to illness. Some children may think having an operation is a result of their naughty behaviour.

It is vital that a child is prepared for surgery and studies of developmental psychology indicate that children tend to be underestimated in their capacity to understand medical details. The more a child knows about what will happen to them, the more likely they are to be less traumatised after surgery and to heal successfully.