Bringing Your Whole Self to Work When Your Whole Self Just Had Major Surgery

Hannah Chase
Fearless She Wrote
Published in
7 min readSep 1, 2020


I’ve tried to write this piece a few times before, but haven’t been able to get through it. Perhaps that’s because writing something like this takes time and thought and focus — the type of time and thought and focus that doesn’t usually get prioritized in the days immediately following a major surgery.

Of the 193 countries in the world, 179 of them guarantee some amount of paid sick leave; the United States is among the 14 countries that do not. I work at a company with great benefits by US standards, and I still only get ten days of paid sick leave a year, so I’m usually in a hurry to get back. Last week, I had surgery and was hospitalized for five of those days.

In terms of returning to work, I’ve always been lucky to have kind, supportive colleagues who encourage me to take as much time as I need. The problem is, there’s always pressure to get back to work, and determining how much time I need isn’t as straightforward as one might think. Let’s look at my most recent surgery:

I was admitted to the hospital a week and a half ago with a bowel obstruction. After days of testing, I had surgery to remove an ovarian cyst (which was causing the obstruction). I was discharged two days later and spent most of the weekend sleeping. I’ve now been home for three days.

When it comes to figuring out how much time I physically need before returning to work, these are some questions I’ve been asking myself (along with my current answers):

Do I need to spend my days fully horizontal, taking in only fluids, on opiates around the clock? (No.)

Am I contagious in any way? (No. Also not relevant right now, as my whole company is working from home.)

Is there any physical limitation or injury preventing me from sitting at my desk or typing? (Not really.)

Is there anything preventing me from verbally participating in meetings? (My throat is majorly inflamed from intubation and I’ve got a bad case of oral thrush that has moved down to my throat, but aside from that, not really.)

Is there a chance that engaging in my regular work duties might spawn a new ovarian cyst? (God I hope not.)

So for all intents and purposes, I don’t physically need more time off from work. And given the number of projects I’m currently juggling, the small size of my team, my pathological need to feel useful and productive, and my desire to protect those five remaining sick days, my instinct is to return immediately. It’s what I’ve always done. If I’m physically able to return, then I will.

But this is not the advice I would give to someone else in my position, which gives me pause. It’s not the advice I’d give to someone I care about, and it’s not the advice I’d give to someone at work. Because physically needing time off and being ready to return are not actually the same thing. And when we rush to return just because we’re physically capable of it, we neglect to ask ourselves the following questions which are just as important as the ones above:

Am I still crying at least once a day remembering any number of the unpleasant, invasive, and scary events of the last week and a half? (Yes.)

Am I still negotiating with my insurance over thousands of dollars that they’re claiming they won’t cover? (Yes.)

Am I still taking prescription pain meds to sleep comfortably? (Yes.)

Am I still waiting for pathology to come back to determine whether the ovarian cyst I had removed is malignant, which would necessitate another surgery at a minimum? (Yes. )

[Note: it’s most likely benign, but I won’t know for sure for another few days.]

Am I still mentally processing an unplanned hospitalization, including an emergency cystectomy — my ninth abdominal surgery! — which will create scar tissue and decrease my chances of getting pregnant in the future? (Yes.)

Am I still being hyper-vigilant about my body, scanning for any sign of infection or recurrent symptoms that could send me back to the ER? (Yes.)

Am I still anxiously awaiting test results from the COVID-19 swab I did after being discharged, given the fact that I’m immune-compromised and just spent six nights in the hospital? (Yes.)

Is my mental capacity maxed out with thoughts about my health and healthcare in general: how grateful I am to those who’ve taken good care of me; how hard it must have been for my parents to stay away from the hospital due to COVID concerns; how in awe I am of the hospital staff who worked through the worst of COVID in NYC and are still sharing stories and laughs as they wheel me from room to room or deposit my “clear liquids” breakfast tray; how privileged I am to have access to good and unbiased care; how angry I am that many are not afforded the same; how exhausting it is to know the ins and outs of abdominal surgery better than some of the medical staff I encountered last week? (Yes, my mental capacity is fully maxed out at the moment.)

A lot of people have it a lot worse than I do, and I am incredibly lucky to have any paid sick days. The point I’m trying to make is: when we rush back to work just because we’re out of the hospital and able to handle the physical demands of a job, we make it near impossible to bring our “full selves” to work because we haven’t allowed for the rest of the healing to happen.

And that healing isn’t quite as obvious. You can see a scar close up, feel a fever go down, taste a diet expand. You can’t exactly see your anxieties diminish or notice the increased mental space you suddenly have to focus on an upcoming presentation.

In the past, I’ve returned the first day I’m physically able. This time, I’ve decided to give myself a week post-surgery, which sounds downright extravagant and makes me feel like a full-on slacker. But even that won’t be enough. I won’t be ready.

I’m not really sure what the moral is here, or who I’m even writing this for. I just knew I wanted to get something down, because returning to work after having had surgery is something I’ve now done quite a few times, and it’s really hard.

So perhaps I’m writing this for the managers and teammates of someone returning to work after surgery (or really after any significant event — an illness, a personal loss, a cultural loss, even a birth). Perhaps this is a plea to be kind, to be patient, to be understanding as they navigate their return amidst all the rest swirling around in their brain. Encourage them to take more time, and mean it. Do what you can to distribute their work while they’re out so that they don’t come back to a large pile of things that have just been sitting and waiting for them, now with more urgency. Most importantly, let them know you understand that returning to work isn’t as simple as flipping an “on” switch. It’s gradual, and it’s complicated. I am incredibly lucky that my current team and department already know all of this and have, in fact, pressured me to take more time to recover, not less. I know not everyone is as fortunate as I am.

Perhaps I’m writing this for the person who has just had surgery and is trying to figure out the right time to go back. While this decision has to be a personal one, I strongly encourage you to take more time than you think you need. Surgery may be time away from work, but it isn’t a vacation. It’s work. It’s more work than work! Carve out some real downtime to give your body and mind time to rest and recover. It isn’t weak, it isn’t selfish, and it isn’t something to feel shame or guilt about. Work can always wait; your health cannot.

Perhaps I’m just writing this for myself.

As someone with a chronic illness who navigates working while sick all year round, “bringing my full self to work” is already hard. And most of the time, I’m at peace with that. Work is work. It’s important to me that my colleagues know about my illness in general, but they don’t need to know every single time I’m in discomfort or anxiously awaiting a test result. These things are regular occurrences for me, and I’ve gotten pretty good at compartmentalizing them.

But coming back from major surgery — where my body has been sliced open and rearranged — is a time where that outside-of-work stuff does start to interfere. So maybe it means taking a few extra days off. Maybe it means taking a less active role in a current project. Maybe it means being patient with myself if I’m not moving at my usual pace. Maybe it means being honest when, in the middle of a meeting, someone asks me a question and I have to admit I haven’t been paying attention. Even though by the time I return I won’t be fully ready, I’d like to bring enough of myself to work that I don’t have to pretend that I am.

I’m usually not that good at pretending, anyway.

One final note: it didn’t feel right to publish this without acknowledging the ubiquity of racism and racial bias in medicine today. On average, this leads to white women like me receiving better, faster, and more compassionate care than Black women. That is unacceptable. While this issue won’t be solved overnight, I encourage folks to check out the following organizations doing great work to support BIPOC women:

  • The Loveland Foundation, which provides financial assistance to Black women and girls seeking therapy.
  • Mamatoto Village, which creates career pathways for Women of Color in public health and human services and provides perinatal support services.
  • Shades of Blue Project, which supports women from minority communities before, during, and after childbirth.
  • Center for Black Women’s Wellness, a community-based family service center committed to improving the health and well-being of under-served Black women and their families.
  • Black Women for Wellness, which is committed to the health and well-being of Black women and girls through education, empowerment and advocacy.

These are just a handful of organizations doing this important work. If you are aware of others, please leave them in the comments section below; thank you.



Hannah Chase
Fearless She Wrote

Teacher, improviser, adventurer. I mostly write about chronic illness.