My median sternotomy and thymectomy: Part V – Home

When I was preparing for the surgery, my surgeon explained that I would not have as much pain and difficulty since I was young. At first, I couldn’t understand why I was in so much pain and getting passed in the hallway by elderly patients with their iv poles. A little talk with the nurses (with the exception of one dud, I liked all of my nurses), cleared up the confusion a bit. They explained that while my recovery period would like be a breeze in comparison to elderly patients, their experiences over the years pointed towards more pain for younger patients post-surgery. One older nurse in particular told me that she often had 80 year-old patients just needing Tylenol when they left the hospital and 30 year-old patients leaving with strong prescriptions. Gee, thanks surgeon. You could have explained a little better.

I left the hospital with hydrocodone and I needed to take it pretty much every four hours consistently. The drive home was similar to any surgery – bumps were painful, but I made it. I wasn’t able to sit on my couch when I first got home; it is a low, modern sectional and I couldn’t get back up off it at first without pain. My husband moved a recliner from the little man’s room into the living room and it became my seat, dining room table, and bed for the next few days.

Sleeping flat was still out of the question when I came home. If I ended up “too flat” (and that changed from day to day), I had pain from the pulling on my incision, interior pain, and the sensation that I had a big metal plate sitting on my chest. I didn’t sleep well, but I slept a lot. At first, the pain meds knocked me out. Then they started to give me insomnia (not to mention constipation) and my sleep schedule somewhat flipped. After a little bit in the recliner, I moved onto my couch, but still propped up into a leaning position. All I wanted to do was curl up on my side or – better yet! – on my stomach. I was stuck on my back for a month before I started to have a little more flexibility in sleeping positions. Even when I could sleep in a flatter position and moved back into my bed, it was helpful to elevate my arms a bit so they didn’t pull at my incision.

I could not do anything for myself. Not anything. I wasn’t allowed to lift anything heavier than five pounds. I don’t know if you have noticed, but everything is heavier than five pounds. I think my peppermint mocha this morning may have been heavier than five pounds. Need a glass of milk? Ask someone. Need to open a heavy door? Ask someone. Need to open a tough jar? Ask someone. Feel like you are useless and want to do some chores? Too bad, sit back down.

Range of motion was also a problem. I couldn’t really stretch to pick anything up or put on my clothes. I left the hospital without my compression bra on, but it only took a couple of hours to realize that was a mistake (again, boobs are heavy). I had my husband help me into a sports bra. It is pretty difficult for another person to put a piece of tight clothing on you when you can’t put your arms up hardly any. Even when my range of motion improved, I kept getting stuck in situations I couldn’t get out of. One night, I tried to put on this tight long sleeved shirt. I got stuck. Even though I could put on other shirts by myself, I didn’t have the strength to stretch the shirt onto my arms. Go figure. I put my socks on by myself two weeks post-surgery. It was a facebook-worthy moment.

I also got out of the house for the first time two weeks post-surgery. That was the first time I felt comfortable riding in the car. My pillow stayed with me at all times for coughing, getting up, and difficult movements. Eventually, I picked out a nicer small pillow that I didn’t mind carrying around in public. It is still on my couch today. When I felt more comfortable leaving the house, fatigue was a big problem. I had to carefully plan so I wouldn’t get stuck in the back of Wal-Mart without the strength to keep going.

During recovery, I had regular appointments with my surgeon. At the first appointment I had an x-ray to make sure the bone was healing properly. Since everything looked okay, this was the only post-surgery x-ray I needed. Aside from that, the appointments were mostly to check my incision and to make sure I was doing enough activities, but not too many activities. Delicate balance and all.

Speaking of the incision – my scar is right in the middle of my chest and starts a couple of inches above my boobs. It is about eight inches long with three small spots underneath from the drains. It is not pretty. Overall, my scar spread and is wider than expected. Also, the very top of my incision did not heal properly. It scabbed over and the scab fell off early revealing a dent. It looked like someone put their thumb on my chest, pressed down and rotated into a circle. Basically, it was still healing, but now had to steal from the bottom up. When I got out of the shower in the morning, I had to lean over to let the water run out of it. I wore a band aid over it until it was completely healed. Now the top of my scar spreads into a quarter-sized circle. I may decide to see a plastic surgeon about it in the future.

I went back to work after two months, although I did work a few hours a week at home for a couple of weeks first. I still couldn’t pick much up and the fatigue was a problem, but it was nice to be back to normal.

One year post surgery: My scar is still slightly red. My sternum stopped hurting when I coughed/sneezed/hiccupped/twisted my body about six months ago. It stopped aching when the weather changed about two months ago and now only does it occasionally. I still have some soreness with the muscles in my upper chest and shoulders, but this is likely more about my scoliosis and the surgery instead of just the surgery.



  1. Hi! I had a thymectomy by median sternotomy almost a month ago. My experience was nearly exactly like yours. Very uneventful, and I got to go home on day 6.

    My question to you is regarding pain meds. I’m 27, so I guess I’m in the higher passion category. After leaving the hospital I was given 5 days worth of oxy (I was able to stretch out to 7). Once I ran out the only thing they’ll give me are Tylenol 3s, which take the edge off but I cant really even do the breathing exercises comfortably. I was at the doctor today (not my surgeon, I see him in a week) who seemed surprised I was still in that much pain. Which surprised me, considering the invasiveness of the procedure…

    Anyways! My question is, when did you feel comfortable off of prescription painkillers?

    1. I don’t remember specifics about when I went off painkillers completely, but can tell you that I went through nearly two bottles of hydrocodone (60 pills total). I needed them every night to sleep and for sure anytime I left the house – not to mention just nearly all the time for the first couple of weeks. For me, things started to improve dramatically after the first month.

  2. My scar goes up to my neck where it joins a horizontal scar. I had a median sternotomy to remove a retrosternal goitre and at the same time had half my thyroid removed. That was in 2008. It still hurts occasionally, although only slightly.

  3. I am going to have a sternotomy in a couple of months (for metastatic breast cancer that spread to the sternum and involves pretty much the whole median sternum) I am so scared!!! Your blog has helped me so much. THANK YOU!!! Did they use rods and mesh to stabalize your ribs, or did they use the muscle flaps? It seems that every surgeon I speak to has a different method.

    1. Hmm, I can’t remember what they used. I think I blocked a lot of the specific details involving the bones because I found it very hard to actually think about what they were going to do.

      I’m glad my posts have been useful. Good luck with your surgery and treatment!

  4. I had a thymoma and had surgery in February of this year. I’m still on pain meds from the sternotomy. When does the pain quit?

  5. hello! I chanced on your blog while recovering from my own thymectomy. Your blog was doubly helpful in information about the surgery and book reviews for what to read in the weeks after surgery after losing to an olive jar. I was wondering how long were you not allowed to lift more than 5 pounds? I’ve been told anywhere from 4 to 8 weeks weight restriction.

  6. Hi ya,you say on your blog that you are heavy? Just curious how heavy as im having my thymoma removed via full sternotomy and im anxious how much trouble my weight will cause me ????

  7. Hello there
    These comments are all very helpful to me. I’m post op , 6 weeks now and off all pain killers. Waiting for my first appointment with surgeon on Monday.
    Have to admit it has been the worst experience of my life. I do see light at the end of the tunnel now.
    I woukd like to know when can I swim or do some exercise as I’m weighty and want to get slimmer for the summer
    Anyone got any tips?

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