I am an Adult Tonsillectomy Survivor.
I know, I know – you’re probably as tired of hearing about my tonsillectomy as you are my running. I get it. But I wrote about my surgery day and never got back to writing about the recovery. Because of this gross oversight (and yes it is definitely gross in all the intents of the word), I have had several future tonsillectomy recipients ask me for the full analysis of what the recovering is really like. We’ve all heard that it’s the most brutal surgery an adult can have and that you’ll hate your surgeon for the rest of your life – but are the rumors true?
I cannot confirm or deny the experience of every tonsillectomy, but here are the facts, observations, and tips from my personal experience.
1. The pain never got to what I would consider a “10” in and of itself. Especially on the actual surgery day, which really wasn’t bad. During the whole recovery, I never found myself writhing about in pain that I couldn’t handle. I’d rate my pain experience at 60% of what I expected it to be.
2. However, I spent ten entire days never allowing myself to go more than five hours without a pain pill – I even had Chris waking me up like a nursing newborn every four hours overnight, except that he was feeding me Vicodin instead of breastmilk. I did start to take half pills and even quarter pills during the second week, but even letting a quarter of a pill wear off was a really bad idea.
3. The exception to #1 and #2: The one night I did attempt to make it through the night without a pain pill did end in writhing pain. Lesson: take your pain pills. Do not screw this up. Keep a pain pill diary to make sure you do not screw this up. I repeat. DO NOT SCREW THIS UP.
4. The hardest part was not the pain – it was living. No one told me how impossible the function of swallowing would become. On days 2-4, I had to go everywhere with a spit cup – just to relieve my mouth of excess saliva (count how many times a day you subconsciously swallow saliva. It’s more than you think.) Spit cups are not sexy.
5. The not swallowing thing is a bummer, since having a tonsillectomy does not deplete your appetite, and you also kinda need to eat so as not to vomit back up those all-important and giant pain pills. Reality versus expectations with regards to my ability to swallow rates in at 300%.
6. Slowly allowing sorbet to evaporate down your throat in microscopic amounts is the only way to absorb nutrients during these exasperating few days. My recovery in numbers: 7 Quarts of Doodles Sorbet and 2 half-gallons of Edy’s ice cream. Yet I lost 12 pounds. (Which I’m sure I’ve gained back in entirety but I wouldn’t know because I ceased stepping on the scale immediately after I quit losing weight because scales are only fun when the numbers are going down.)
7. Tonsillectomies do not hinder the ability of your legs to function. I took several 1-2 mile slow walks with Chris, starting on day two, that helped me feel somewhat normal and medicated my feelings about my over-medication. Pain pills just make me sad.
8. During the days where swallowing was impossible, breathing was also difficult, which made living difficult, and sleeping even worse. Even sitting straight up, I snored so loudly that Chris said it was nearly worse than when I was 9 months pregnant.
9. The three most painful things that you can do while recovering from a tonsillectomy are yawning, coughing, and sneezing. Yawning is the worst because it occurs the most often. I didn’t sneeze for the first time until Day Ten, yet it still made me cry. Then I began sneezing regularly. The painfulness of sneezing continued on into the third and fourth week – it was so excruciating that I taught myself how to quit sneezing through my throat and start sneezing entirely out of my nose.
This is a problem because sneezing out your nose can be, and most likely will always be, messy.
This is a serious problem because it’s hard to relearn how to sneeze out of your throat.
In fact, I have yet been unable to do so.
So every time a sneeze catches me off guard (at least twice a day), I end up covered in snot and horrified at my own existence. This has not yet happened outside my home, but the time is coming – I can just feel it.
I need Sneeze Rehab as soon as possible.
10. All food tastes like carburetor after a tonsillectomy. It’s uncanny really – even if you’ve never tasted carburetor or maybe it’s been ten years since you last tasted carburetor, you’ll know what carburetor tastes like when you have a tonsillectomy. On day one, 100% of everything tasted like carburetor. The percentage of carburetor foods slowly decreased over the next five weeks, in order of foods with least to most preservatives, thereby forcing me to eat healthy. Golden Oreos were the last thing to return from the carburetor.
11. Even if you’re not the kind of person that gets a high off of pain pills, they might still make you draw eyebrows over all of your thigh freckles. That is okay.
12. If you find yourself in need of protein, try Corned Beef Hash. It might still taste like carburetor and look like wet cat food, but it will keep you alive. Other “foods” I managed to eat were: Mashed Cauliflower, completely textureless and lumpless soups, chicken broth, and yogurt. Sorbet was infinitely more pleasant than any of them.
13. It wasn’t until day five that I could finally see an opening down the back of my throat. That was the day that I also started feeling better and my throat scabs began to flake off. I felt like recovery was imminent and all those promises of fourteen days of misery were lies.
14. I discovered that now I had giant caverns on either side of my throat that liked to house all of my attempts at eating food – think wisdom teeth holes except ten times bigger. After each bite, I had to flush my mashed cauliflower out of these rather sensitive holes. That was gross. And I feared greatly that I’d have mouth holes for the rest of my life.
(Spoiler: they grew back. Just like wisdom teeth holes. The body is a weird and amazing thing.)
15. Throat scabs are white. Very white and very thick. I have many pictures of my fabulous progression of throat scabs that you don’t want to see. And then I have pictures of the cups of used salt water that I gargled to remove my throat scabs once they started peeling off. You definitely don’t want to see that, but since I’m sure you’re curious, it looks somewhat like giant flesh-eating amoebas floating through the Amazon. Or an ocean full of plankton.
16. Once I gargled my throat scabs off, my throat became intensely raw and painful – more so than when I couldn’t swallow. This was a big fat bummer, as regressing is the worst feeling ever. I am still unsure if it was my own fault for cleansing my throat, or if it was going to happen anyway. This made days 7-8 the absolutely worst days in the whole process – because I was in pain and depressed.
(As a side note, I SO WISH I had my Red Light Therapy bars when I was recovering from this surgery. Aside from helping with aches and pains and sleep and sadness, it heals flesh wounds – even in the throat – so much more quickly than they heal on their own. I might have spent the entire two weeks lying in front of that light. Or maybe I’d have just needed one week because my healing would have been sped up. If you haven’t read about Red Light Therapy, I highly recommend it – it has literally changed my life.)
17. When I woke up on day nine, I actually WOKE UP. It was the most amazing feeling – I felt alive again, and realized that I had been very much dead for over a week. I actually didn’t realize how un-lucid I had been until that moment – anesthesia always messes with me significantly longer than it seems like it should. I was still in pain and was still taking pain medicine religiously, which made me realize even more so how much the surgery had actually affected me.
18. On day fourteen, I went out on my first true run (I’d attempted on Day nine and day twelve rather unsuccessfully). All of my favorite victorious anthems came on, spurring me on to life again. I pumped my fists in the air while runners by stared judgmentally, and nearly cried from my exuberance over being alive.
19. On day twenty-eight, I contracted a throat infection. As I had been sold on getting a tonsillectomy for the sole purpose of ending my cycle of throat infections, I was unhappy.
So naturally, I cyber-stalked my ENT. Turns out he lives exactly one mile from my house. I fantasized about walking up that hill, demanding my money, my tonsils, and a month of my life back.
But in an effort to be slightly less creepy, I went into his office the next day and demanded all of those things. With Noah in tow. Who asked him 757 questions about everything in his office as extra punishment.
20. I’m now eight weeks out from surgery, and I am completely recovered except that I am still somewhat hoarse – which you will discover if you approach me unexpectedly. I will do that high-pitched “Hi there! How are you doing?” and “Hi” and “You” will be silent because my voice cannot hit those octaves anymore.
My Most Important Tips:
a. Have a long series queued up on Netflix ready to binge (my show choice was 30 Rock.)
b. Have a freezer full of sorbet (I preferred peach and mint chip.)
c. Be emotionally prepared for a regression. Do not let yourself believe that you will be the exception to a two week recovery.
d. Do NOT miss taking your pain pill.
e. When you reach the crossroads of sneezes-that-make-you-cry or learn-to-sneeze-through-your-nose, just cry it out. Once you go nose, you can’t go back.
And, one final FAQ: one of my friends asked me after the surgery, “So do you have a cool scar, or were they able to go in through your mouth?”
No worries, people – you can see your tonsils when you open your mouth – they hang out on either side of your uvula. They will not slit your throat open to get to them.
Editor’s Note (November, 2017): Getting a tonsillectomy was the BEST decision I’ve ever made. I went from having 13 antibiotics in a year with multiple secondary infections to hardly ever getting sick. When I have gotten a cold, it has be super light and hasn’t turned into anything worse. I do not remember the last time I went to the doctor for a nose or throat problem. It was miraculous! So have hope – it will all be worth it.