How to Care for Your Loved One After a Colectomy

Recovery from colectomy is going to depend largely upon the patient's health prior to the surgery. There are a number of factors that contribute to how quickly someone is back up and running after major surgery. If possible, talk to the doctor beforehand to learn what you should expect. The doctor should be able to estimate their recovery time and help you prepare for your loved one's homecoming. If your loved one has an extensive medical history or a history of diabetes, lung disease, or heart disease, their post-operative recovery might take a little longer than the average healthy adult. The factors used to determine how quickly someone will recover include:

  • Age
  • A history of medical conditions (aside from the colon cancer)
  • Diet
  • Lifestyle (Do they smoke cigarettes? Exercise?)
A man in the hospital with his wife by his side
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Hospital Recovery

A total colectomy is a major operation and requires a three to seven-day hospital stay on average. During this time, the doctors and nurses will be working hard to keep your loved one comfortable, watch for any complications, and ease them back into nutrition and activity.

Potential Complications

Like most major surgeries, there are risks and potential complications associated with the colectomy. And while none of them are routine, the most common complications include:

If complications do occur, the patient's hospital stay and increase their overall recovery time. They also might need more assistance when they come home. For instance, if a surgical wound infection occurs, your loved one's surgeon will most likely suggest homecare nurses to come and help you care for the wound until it has healed.

Before Homecoming

There are several things you can do to prepare for your loved one's arrival home after surgery. Barring any complications, they should not require any additional assistance beyond what you can offer.

Personal Care

Things that many people take for granted, such as showering, moving around, and using the restroom, become a challenge following abdominal surgery. If they have a split-level or two-story home, it may be difficult initially for your loved one to ambulate up and down the steps to shower, rest, or go to bed. If you have a ground floor room available — preferably very close to a bathroom — that is best. Following a colectomy, most people will have up to six bowel movements per day. It might help your loved one conserve energy if they have access to, or can rent, a bedside commode for a few weeks.


Get a list of your loved one's medications prior to surgery, and make sure that they have a good supply. If they take multiple medications daily, a pillbox or planner might help to keep things organized. Upon discharge from the hospital, the surgeon will probably give you prescriptions to control pain and help them recover more quickly. Fill them immediately, as you never know when they may begin to feel uncomfortable after arriving home. Also, make sure you have their insurance card and ID when you go to pick the medications up.

Check their comfort frequently once they arrive home. Any medications given for pain at the hospital may begin to wear off and they might be in pain. Use the medications from the doctor as prescribed and be sure to call the doctor if the pain medications are not keeping your loved one comfortable.

There is a good chance they will not feel up to eating a large meal anytime soon. Smaller, more frequent meals are usually preferable following surgery. Check with the doctor to see if there are any specific dietary recommendations; soft foods, water, and soup may be advisable.

When to Call the Doctor

Review the discharge instructions carefully. Most surgeons give specific guidelines on what to expect following surgery versus when to call immediately. In general, you should the doctor if:

  • Their pain is increasing or poorly controlled with the medication given
  • They develop a fever of 101 F or have drainage or redness around the surgical incision
  • They develop any unusual symptoms (vomiting, confusion, lethargy)
  • No bowel movement in four days following discharge or they were having bowel movements and they suddenly stopped
  • If they develop sudden swelling in her belly, especially if it is accompanied by nausea or vomiting
  • Their legs become swollen or they have pain in the back of one or both calves (posterior lower leg pain)
3 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Large Bowel Resection. US National Library of Medicine. January 2020.

  2. Holmer C, Kreis ME. Management of Complications Following Emergency and Elective Surgery for Diverticulitis. Viszeralmedizin. 2015;31(2):118-23.  doi:10.1159/000377696

  3. Total Colectomy. US National Library of Medicine. September 2018.

Additional Reading
  • American Cancer Society. (n.d.). Surgery for Colorectal Cancer. 
  • National Institute of Health, Medline Plus. (n.d.). Total Abdominal Colectomy. 
  • National Institute of Health. Medline Plus. (n.d.). Total Colectomy or Proctocolectomy Discharge Instructions.

By Julie Wilkinson, BSN, RN
Julie Wilkinson is a registered nurse and book author who has worked in both palliative care and critical care.