Two men were talking in the grocery store line the other day. “Carl had a kidney stone. Did you know that?"
The other man shook his head. "Jesus, they say it's as painful as having a baby."
Well, I’ve never had a baby. But I can tell you that passing a kidney stone is like giving birth to a razor blade. And in my unschooled opinion, it’s worse than childbirth. Having a baby is a joyful experience. But jagged little stones passing through your ureter tube -- that’s just God's way of screwing with you.
Lori and I are out to dinner. A strange sensation stirs in my lower abdomen. I move restlessly in my chair, but the discomfort grows until I can’t take it any more.
“We'd better go,” I say.
All the way home I squirm in the passenger seat, with not the slightest notion that a renal lithiasis, a small, clumpy deposit made up of mineral and acid salts, has exited my kidney, in search of that proverbial light at the end of the tunnel.
I don't do doctors very well, so when I say, "Take me to the hospital," Lori knows it’s bad.
We arrive in the ER shortly after 9 p.m. It’s a Friday night, on a full moon, and it’s packed. I can barely walk at this point. I am trying to hold it together, but I must not being doing a good job, because a nurse races over to me and pulls me in the direction of a room marked “Triage.” I throw up in the sink.
They place me on a gurney and wheel me into a room, where they shoot me full of morphine and the pain dwindles to a dull throb. The doctor orders a CAT scan. It is performed in a room with the A/C as cold as it can possibly go, and my hospital gown pulled up all the way to my navel, so the thirty-something female technician can get a full view of my thing.
"You know," I say to her, "you're seeing me at my most vulnerable." I imagine her sitting in the break room, stifling laughter as she tells the others, “There was this guy today with the smallest penis I've ever seen. I mean, like, it did this turtle thing." They would all guffaw.
"I'm sure you've seen it all, huh?" I say, and assess her face for the slightest hint of a smile.
"Nothing shocks me anymore," she replies, and I think, Not even turtles?
I'm wheeled back to my room to wait for the results. It takes approximately an eternity. The doctor comes in. “I have to check your colon,” he says casually.
"Your colon," he says and snaps a pair of blue latex gloves on his hands. "We have to rule out cancer."
And before I can wrap my head around the words "colon" and "cancer,” I sink my teeth into the pillow.
Two hours later, he comes back with the result. "You have a kidney stone," he announces.
Great, I want to say. Is it a boy or a girl?
"It seems that you passed the first one while you were here tonight."
The first one?
"You were under the influence of morphine," the doctor explains. "So, you probably wouldn't have felt it passing through. The second one is still in your kidney."
"Just point me in the direction of the Jacuzzi,” I say.
"Jacuzzi?" The doctor's brow furrows.
"To break it up."
"I'm afraid that's a myth," he says.
"What about laser surgery?"
The doctor shakes his head. "I'm afraid not. You'll have to pass it the old-fashioned way. I'll give you a painkiller to take home with you if you feel it coming on." He turns and leaves the room.
Coming on? This isn’t exactly the common cold.
The next morning, I have a follow-up appointment with a urologist. I don't know if you've ever been inside the waiting room of a urologist's office, but I suspect it’s similar to Hell's waiting room. Mr. Lacare? Satan will see you now.
In the corner sits an older man in his 70s. He is wearing bib overalls and his face is beet red. He is rocking back and forth in his chair.
"Uhhhhhhhhhhh," he groans. "Uhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh." Every few seconds he lets out another low groan. I try to keep my eyes glued to an Entertainment Weekly, but they keep sliding toward him. The nurse asks him if he is all right. Does he look all right to you? I want to say. The man sounds like he's been shot in the gut.
"You can't go to the bathroom?" the nurse asks him. "Is that it?"
The man nods. "Uhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh."
“OK, then, Mr. Deeson, we're going to have to catheterize you again. But I'm going to teach you, so you'll know how to do it yourself the next time you gotta go, OK?”
Kill me now, I thought, if this is what life has in store when you age. Some polite stranger giving you an instructional on how to insert a tube in your penis.
About 15 minutes later, I’m called in. I can still hear Mr. Deeson's screams down the hall, and then, just like that, it is silent. The nurse has drained him like water from a new can of peas.
"I hate to do this to you," the doctor tells me when he enters, "but I'll need you to drop 'em."
"I just had it done yesterday at the hospital,” I say. “It's all good."
"Come on,” he says. “It’s my favorite part of the job."
This has to be some kind of a medical conspiracy to maximize the number of professional fingers up my ass.
I unfasten my belt. "Aren't you going to buy me dinner first?"
Finally, the good news: It takes anywhere from two days to two weeks to pass a kidney stone. I have to drink copious amounts of water, like a gallon per day. Yes, that’s the good news.
The bad news is that once you get a kidney stone, the likely chance of getting another is 85%. The doctor recommends that I avoid iced tea, coffee and cola drinks. Lemonade is fine, but water is really the only liquid he condones. Kidney stones are typically the result of dehydration and a high-sodium diet. Men are far more likely to get them than women, and if you reside in the South, then that sucks for you because warmer, more humid climates tend to cause them more often.
For the next two weeks, I cringe every time I have to use the restroom. I stand there in front of the bowl or urinal and think, Is this it? Will this be the moment that brings me to my knees?
The urologist has given me a small net, and I'm supposed to piss through it. The net looks like something you use to catch butterflies, or scoop goldfish from a tank, and I feel crazy holding it here, like I’m fishing in my own urine stream. But that’s how I’m supposed to catch the stone, so I can take it back to the doctor for analysis.
I carry around my Oxy all the time. All I have to do is pop one in my mouth if I feel even the slightest inkling of discomfort. Lori hates the idea of narcotic painkillers.
"They're not good for you,” she says. “And they're addicting."
She is right. But if the doctor feels compelled to write me a scrip, who am I to disagree? When the shit hits the fan, I’ll need all the backup I can get. I assure her I don’t need the entire bottle. Just a pill or two.
"Well, flush the rest down the toilet," she says.
Are you kidding me? Do you know the street value of these things?
I pass the stone inside the bathroom of an automobile dealership. I have no idea it's about to happen until the moment I am standing in front of the toilet and I can't go. I push and feel the obstruction, but miraculously there is no pain. I push harder. Seconds later, my urine streams out, and there is a microscopic black speck floating in the bowl. I only notice it because I’m looking. It’s that small.
I have never been more relieved to be rid of something inside me. To think that a minuscule pebble of calcium can wreak such havoc. It was like having a ticking time bomb lodged in your excretory system.
You are evil, I say to it and flush the toilet with glee. If only ridding yourself of trauma were always this easy. I watch it swirl around the bowl and descend, gone forever.