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Normal Life After the Whipple Procedure: Is it Possible?

written by: Jacquelyn Gilchrist • edited by: Leigh A. Zaykoski • updated: 7/21/2010

Patients should expect life after the Whipple procedure to include a hospital stay that typically lasts about two weeks. Each recovery time is different and depends on the general health of the patient. Most patients are able to resume normal activities once they are fully recovered.

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    What is It?

    The Whipple procedure is also sometimes called a pancreaticoduodenectomy. Patients who suffer from pancreatic cancer and chronic pancreatitis may undergo this surgical procedure. During surgery, the parts of the pancreas that are cancerous are removed. The surgeon may also remove cancerous tissues from the immediate area, if appropriate. In order to accomplish this, the surgeon will need to divide and detatch parts of the digestive system, such as the small intestine. After the cancerous tissues are removed, the surgeon reconnects the patient's intestinal tract and other tissues.

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    What Happens Immediately After Surgery?

    Immediately following the Whipple surgery, the nurse will take you to a post-operative unit for recovery. In this room, the nurses can monitor your vital signs (such as heart rate) to ensure that you are recovering properly from the surgery and the anesthesia. Your bandages will also be monitored for signs of fluid seepage. They will need to be changed daily to ensure the incision area is kept clean and dry.

    Once you wake up from the anesthesia, your nurse will teach you how to use the PCA pump. This pump, connected to your IV, controls your pain medication administration. If you experience pain, press a button to receive pain medication. The pump does regulate the amount of pain medication received, however life after the Whipple procedure does not need to be painful.

    Some patients may be placed on a ventilator for the first night following surgery. A ventilator is a machine to help you breathe. You will be unable to talk, however you will likely not remain on the ventilator for long. After the ventilator is removed, it's important to cough and practice deep breathing.

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    Recovery in the First Few Days

    The day after your surgery, you will be encouraged to get out of bed. However, you will likely not begin walking up and down the hall until the second day. Even if it feels difficult, it's important to walk to avoid complications like blood clots. Your doctor may also recommend compression garments or a compression device to aid the blood circulation in your legs.

    Your new life after the Whipple procedure will also likely include a few tubes, such as a nasogastric tube to help your stomach and bowels begin functioning properly. A Foley catheter may also be used to drain urine. These tubes often come out after three to five days.

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    Symptoms to Watch Out For

    After you are discharged from the hospital, keep a careful eye on your health. Your doctor will schedule follow-up appointments to check on your recovery, often about three weeks following the procedure. If you notice any symptoms of a possible post-surgery complication, inform your doctor immediately. These symptoms may include worsening pain or a fever. Observe the incision site for signs of warmth, redness, swelling, or drainage, and see your doctor if you notice any of these issues.

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    Possible Complications

    Some of the possible complications that may arise from a Whipple surgery may include a pancreatic fistula. This causes a leakage of pancreatic fluid, which may require a tube insertion to drain. Usually, this problem heals on its own. Another complication may include paralysis of the stomach, in which your stomach does not function properly and cannot tolerate foods. In this case, your doctor will provide you with intravenous feedings until your stomach returns to normal function. This usually takes about four to six weeks.

    Other long-term complications of the Whipple procedure may include weight loss. Patients may also experience malabsorption of foods, due to the diminished pancreas. If you experience diarrhea, this may indicate malabsorption. Malabsorption is often treated with enzyme supplements.

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    Long-Term Recovery

    Most patients who undergo a Whipple procedure find that after the first month, they are able to slowly resume their normal activities. Plan to take at least a month off of work, school, or other typical activities. After the first month, with your doctor's approval, gradually ease back into your normal routines.