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My Post-Op Diet

Art credit: Nusha Ashjaee
In The Paper Gown’s Food Diary, patients spend a week chronicling the diets they follow to help manage medical conditions.

This time: Nancy, a freelance writer and health coach based in Connecticut, recently spent a week recovering from outpatient surgery for a bunion and hammertoe on her left foot.

Day 1: Surgery day

I’m in the hospital by 6:30 a.m. and out of surgery by 9 a.m., hopefully down a bunion and a hammertoe. For a few years, neither issue bothered me. Then, last year, foot pain set in. Once the discomfort grew severe enough, I opted for surgery.

When I wake up in the recovery room, I remember nothing and feel surprisingly great, thanks to the anesthesia. I’m also hungry after fasting since midnight. The nurse gives me water, coffee with nondairy liquid creamer and a hot blueberry muffin. I would have expected something healthier. But the nurse reminds me that “it’s surgery day,” so I can eat what I want. And I do, knowing the license to indulge is temporary.

As a health coach, I try to eat a clean diet. Before my operation, I stocked up on fruits, vegetables, yogurt and cottage cheese, made a big salad and bought some healthy frozen dinners for times when I’ll be alone for meals. I also placed a cooler in my bedroom with water, ginger-infused iced tea (to help with nausea) and other drinks. I’ve never had surgery before, but my doctor says I have six weeks of recovery ahead of me, since that’s how long it takes for the bones to heal.

Before I went under the knife, I did some research on the optimal post-op diet. There’s very little out there, and the only instruction the hospital gave me was to take my pain medications with crackers to prevent an upset stomach and drink plenty of fluids to avoid constipation. For additional pointers, I reached out to dietitian Christine Rosenbloom, who recommended plenty of high-quality proteins and foods dense in vitamins and minerals to promote both wound-healing and immunity until I’m back on both feet.

By 11 a.m., I’m home in bed with my foot propped up. My sister Linda brings me lunch in bed: Swiss cheese, salami and potato salad, with watermelon for dessert. The salami and potato salad feel decadent, but it’s still surgery day, so I let myself indulge (again).

For dinner, I choose a microwavable burrito bowl and a Greek yogurt chocolate ice pop. The surgery drugs start wearing off, so I take hydrocodone/acetaminophen and ibuprofen — with crackers and water.

Day 2: Back to supplements

It’s Friday, and I’m feeling pretty good. I slept like a rock all night despite having to keep my foot, which is in a cast, elevated. I carefully make my way to the kitchen to heat up my breakfast: an asparagus frittata I’d made in advance, paired with coffee and a tablespoon of fiber powder to prevent the hydrocodone from causing constipation. I also start back on supplements that my primary care provider had me taking, which I was told to stop the day before surgery: vitamin D for bone health, fish oil to thin the blood (blood clots are a risk after all surgeries) and a probiotic to boost immunity. I’ve been taking probiotics like Renew Life 30 Billion and Culturelle for over a year, and I’m convinced they’ve helped me avoid several colds. Probiotics are also especially helpful to restore healthy gut bacteria destroyed by antibiotics, and I’d received penicillin by IV during the surgery to prevent infection.

My friend Peggy visits around lunchtime and brings me a blueberry muffin. I have half for lunch with my iced ginger tea and save half to snack on in the evening.

The doctor checks in on me by phone, and when I say I feel kind of dizzy and weak, he tells me to halve my dose of hydrocodone and eat frequent meals to keep up my strength.

For dinner, my sister brings me takeout from my favorite Thai restaurant: chicken with cashews and pineapple over brown rice.  After dinner, I snack on pretzels (with my meds), a few squares of chocolate and a fruit popsicle.

Day 3: Another day in bed

Saturday morning’s breakfast consists of two Wasa crackers with cottage cheese, plus coffee with the fiber powder. For lunch, I choose a Mexican bowl from a freezer full of healthy microwavable delicacies, and then munch on nuts, chocolate and melon throughout the afternoon. Dinner is a burrito bowl with brown rice.

I spend the day in bed with my foot elevated. Some people lose their appetite after surgery, so I’m relieved that I’m hungry enough for three meals a day.

Day 4: A downturn

I feel shaky and weak, and I definitely need the medications to keep the pain at bay. Using crutches really saps my energy too, and I haven’t even gone outside yet. My friend Ellen brings me an everything bagel with cream cheese for breakfast. I rarely eat bagels, so this is a treat. I thoroughly enjoy every bite.

I make myself melted cheese on pita bread with fruit for lunch, and then snack on pretzels. For dinner, I have steak, salad and a baked potato with butter, but save half for tomorrow’s lunch. Dessert is a low-calorie ice cream cone.

Day 5: Zapped

Monday morning. I thought I might be able to do some writing work by now, but I feel terrible: I have no energy. I’m nauseated. The swelling in my foot won’t go down. I can’t get rid of the pins and needles or the burning sensation, which is a signal that nerves are regenerating, according to my doctor. He tells me to keep my foot elevated above my heart and ice it frequently, which makes it difficult to do anything but read and watch TV.

I have coffee and a banana protein shake with extra fiber for breakfast, and then for lunch, the rest of the steak and baked potato from last night’s dinner, plus some fruit.

My friend Connie arrives for dinner with a salad with feta cheese, my favorite New York-style pizza and more fruit.

Day 6: Listening to my body

I wake up feeling nauseated and weak again. This is getting old. All I can manage for breakfast is coffee with fiber, a little fruit and some crackers. I see the doctor and he says I’m healing really well, and that it’s not unusual to feel weak for a week or more after surgery. He tells me to listen to my body for what it needs. And he reiterates the need to eat frequently to keep my blood sugar stable, as well as drink lots of fluids.

I’m feeling better after the visit and have some pizza that Connie brought me, as well as some watermelon. For dinner, it’s chicken parmesan with zucchini noodles in tomato sauce.

Day 7: Post post-op

Connie goes to the store for me and comes back with croissants. Of course I have a croissant for breakfast, along with my coffee and fiber supplement. I restrain myself at lunch, eating hummus and carrots, cheese and fruit. For dinner, I heat up edamame and have a Mexican bowl from the freezer.

Keeping a healthy diet when you’re stuck in bed, chasing pain meds with crackers, is harder than I expected. But now that I’m somewhat mobile, my bagel days are behind me. Next week, I’ll limit the indulgences — except chocolate, of course.

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The Paper Gown, a Zocdoc-powered blog, strives to tell stories that help patients feel informed, empowered and understood. Views and opinions expressed on The Paper Gown do not necessarily reflect those of Zocdoc, Inc. Learn more.