“How does it feel?”
“On a scale of one to ten how bad is the pain? How does it feel?”
I’ve come up with a pain scale if ever asked that question again. Ten meant you were knocked out or possibly dead from the pain. Nine meant it hurt so bad you were trying to vomit but nothing came out but a guttural moan. Eight meant it hurt that much, but vomit was actually forthcoming distracting you a bit. That meant this was a “seven,” I said.
The emergency room nurse pricked something into my arm as I prayed. I imagined with her manipulation the tightness in my stomach lessening. And it slowly did before moving up to my ribs.
I’d had kidney stones once before fifteen years ago. I was working an office job and sometime after lunch I started feeling uncomfortable. The movie producers I worked for were out of the office so I went to my car and tried to sleep it off. Impossible. I paced around the office and some intern seeing my face, God bless his soul, offered to drive me home. On the afternoon ride I must have been making faces because he said, “Dude, I should take you to the hospital.”
“No, I just want to be home.” In my head the bright fluorescent lights would make things worse. On the throne of my blue toilet I could resolve this.
Home was no better. Bathroom, bedroom, couch in living room. I couldn’t escape it. Until finally the toilet came calling. Out of my mouth came all of that delicious broccoli from that Chinese restaurant where we always ordered take-out. Too bad, I thought. I liked that restaurant but this had to be food poisoning. I had a cast iron stomach. This was Spring 2005 and it was the first time I had thrown up since I stained the newly renovated science wing at my high school between first and second periods when I was a freshman in 1993. I believe on that evening in 2005 I threw up a second time, then I went to sleep, woke up in the middle of the night to drink some rice milk, went back to sleep and in the morning I planned to go back to work when the tightness in my stomach came back. Maybe it wasn’t food poisoning. Maybe my appendix burst?
I didn’t have insurance, and the emergency room treated me as such. A lady came in asked for my credit card before I saw a doctor. Eventually a doctor quickly diagnosed me with kidney stones. This wasn’t on my radar. “What can you do?”
“Nothing. You can wait around here and it will cost you a lot of money to have me watch you pass them or you can go home and pass them yourself. How much pain are you in?”
I noticed I wasn’t hurting.
“Maybe you already passed it without knowing it?” The doctor suggested. He handed me a prescription for painkillers, some paper sieves for me to urinate through to catch the stones for a specialist to examine and sent me on my merry way.
And I was merry. I was back at zero on the pain scale. With the exception of the hospital bills that kept coming my kidney stones were quickly forgotten. I now had a pat answer for the most extreme physical pain I’d ever felt., but as fifteen years passed that pain grew abstract.
Until Saturday morning at 3 am. when I didn’t know why my stomach hurt so much. I burped out gas. I didn’t want to wake my wife so I went to the living room to try to replicate that yoga move she showed me to relieve bloating. I let out some more burps and went to the bathroom and I remembered this was what kidney stones felt like. There was the cramp of all cramps stretching the right side of my lower rib cage. I lied down on the couch and it hurt so much I couldn’t even cry. I could barely even breathe.
I had to vomit, but this time nothing came out but a moan. If anyone would have asked me, this pain was a nine. I paced from the bathroom to the living room and back again. This was kidney stones, it had to be. Or maybe this time my appendix had burst? Regardless, I would go to the emergency room and if need be now the doctor was obliged to watch me pass them, after all I had insurance now.
Except this was the year 2020. And there was a global pandemic for the highly contagious COVID-19. Miami Beach where I now lived was currently one of the hotbeds for the contagion. Was it worth going to a hospital with kidney stones and coming home with coronavirus?
And then my fifteen year vomit-free streak ended. Kidney stones had done twice what no cocktail, mediocre burrito, or flu bug had accomplished by making me retch again. Except this time there was no release. There was no going to sleep for a ten hour slumber. There was only more pain. So much more.
Like anyone searching for answers in our present time I went to the internet. There was something called teledoctor where I could talk to a doctor at any time of night. It was 6 am when I spoke to the medical expert and recited the last few paragraphs to him.
“You need to go to the emergency room,” he told me after my monologue.
“Even with COVID?”
“We take abdominal pain very seriously.”
I appreciated that. For the first time I understood why everyone thought it was so charismatic when Bill Clinton said “I feel your pain.”
I put on some shorts and my flip-flops. It crossed my mind this wasn’t appropriate wardrobe to die in, but it hurt too much to attempt to be fashionable. I woke up my wife and told her I was going to take a taxi to the emergency room. In hindsight I can appreciate this is a messed up thing to be woken up to. She wanted to drive me, but that meant waking up our daughter and I didn’t want her to see me like this.
I’d always been a stubborn contrarian. I can’t even explain why I don’t trust Uber, but I compromised and let her call me one instead of a cab. I’d been boycotting wearing the surgical masks too and had instead been using this bandana I got one Halloween when I masqueraded as a pirate that I tied around the back of my scalp.
I stood outside waiting for the black SUV driven by Rosa to pick me up. The light was coming out indicating morning. I paced around until I saw the massive vehicle parked diagonal from the corner I was at. “Melanie?” she asked. I nodded yeah not having the wellbeing to inform her that it was my wife’s name and app.
She took a long time to start driving. She was looking at her phone. I stopped myself from explaining this was an emergency. I rolled down the window in case I had to vomit again. There were no cars on the road but somehow she caught every red light that was between us and the hospital. I tried to will myself out of my body. It didn’t work. I was stuck.
But we got to the hospital’s campus where a handwritten sign greeted us reading, “Thank you heroes”. Heroes. They would save me.
As mentioned I’d been to emergency rooms before. I expected a long, uncomfortable wait. But after having my temperature taken to make sure I didn’t have a fever and given a surgical mask that I’d avoided for all these months I was grateful to find I was the only person in the lobby. Everyone else was either fortunate or smart enough to be anywhere else at that moment. I filled out some paperwork, turned over my driver’s license and proof of insurance and was quickly walked into their care.
I collapsed on the hospital bed as though all my problems would now disappear. The young guy who led me to the room wrapped velcro around my arm. “Do you have high blood pressure?” he asked.
“It’s probably because he’s in a lot of pain.” A nurse told him and now we’re at the beginning of the story when she asked me “How does it feel?”
So bad that at the time I would have happily made any deal with any deity, god or devil, that agreed to take away the pain.
The nurse injected something into my arm and my mind wandered as it is so prone to do into the world of pop culture. I thought about Kurt Cobain and how he claimed his whole heroin addiction stemmed from stomach pains. Was that my fate? Dependency on drugs to numb the pain, followed by bouts of creativity, worldwide adulation, and then a bullet to the brain? The two middle steps seemed unlikely, but as hours of anguish turned into days I did start considering ending it all for the first time in decades. On day four or five of this kidney stone ordeal I conceived a suicide plan for if this went too much longer. I would find the tallest highrise in my vicinity whose roof I could access. It would have to be at least thirty stories. I would swallow all the pills still in my possession and step off of this cruel ride. You might think this a cowardly solution, but then you probably never had a kidney stone.
But at this point I had faith in modern medicine. And the pain was lessening. I tried to shut my eyes in the bright hospital light and add to the three hours of sleep I was working on.
The nurse as she was adjusting IV’s oozing into me said to someone else in the room. “I have the Eminem song ‘Stan’ stuck in my head.” This was a conversation normally in my wheelhouse. I love small talk about old songs. but I couldn’t muster up the chit-chat. It made sense that a conversation was going on like I wasn’t even in the room.
“I don’t know it,” the other person said.
“It’s where the term Stan comes from when you’re a big fan of someone,” the nurse informed her.
The doctor came in. I explained my whole story as best I could. He felt around my mid-section asking if it hurt here or it hurt there as he applied pressure. He agreed with my self-diagnosis of kidney stones, but was going to have me take a CAT scan just to make certain it wasn’t anything else. He gave me a jar to pee into and then told me something that I noticed everyone in the hospital said as they left my room, “I hope you feel better.”
What a nice thing to say. I told myself I would end all future interactions with that statement after they healed me.
An orderly wheeled my bed into a room where I was told to lie down in an open machine with a cushioned bench. The CAT scan technician told me to follow his instructions of when to hold my breath and when to breathe normally. Holding my breath was easy, breathing normally took more effort.
Wheeled back into my room I heard my phone beep. My wife texted asking my condition. I wrote something back but had no reception. I slept as best I could. At a certain point I heard the song “Stan” played at a low volume just outside my quarters.
“Such a good song,” a male voice said as the samples of Dido singing played over Eminem’s absurd rapping. “It’s funny how much better the first couple albums are. Why’s it always like that? It’s like you only have so many good songs in you.”
That’s a thought so many of us share. The early stuff is always better. Does that apply to life too? I was turning 42 in a week. It’s not old, but it sure ain’t young. Had I used up all my hit songs for my non-musical career? Was the rest of my life meant to be a series of duds with an occasional memorable trip to a hospital thrown in?
Some time after that thought the doctor came in and confirmed it was kidney stones. He gave me a series of prescriptions, told me to see a urologist, drink more water and lay off eating too much salt and they were going to discharge me.
“Wait what?” It took me a second to register they were telling me to leave.
“You can always come back if you’re in too much pain.”
I guess there was a pandemic. And the pain wasn’t as excruciating as it was when I came in. I was at a five now. I checked my pockets. My phone said it was 9:30. Had I only been in their care for three hours? I had a full day ahead of me still. My wallet was in my pocket, but where was that pirate bandana I used as a face covering? Guess I lost it. We had some good trips to Trader Joe’s together. Well I had the hospital issued mask now. But as I walked out of the hospital I saw my reflection and there without my feeling it was the bandana wrapped lower around my throat.
The next days were amongst the worst in my life. The painkillers would stop the harshest edges of the pain, but never enough. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t shit. I couldn’t read or even watch TV. All I could do was down one glass of water followed by a pill followed by another glass of water and then another pill as a mineral rattled around my organs.
In one not particularly proud moment maybe on day three I went on some fuck COVID rant. And not in the way people say fuck cancer. I was certain nothing was worse. I would trade kidney stones for all the coronavirus in the world. Hook me up to a ventilator and stop this!
Maybe on day four I realized Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” was all about kidney stones.
You used to laugh about
Everybody that was hanging out
Now you don’t talk so loud
Now you don’t seem so proud
I continued to offer my services to Yahweh and to Allah and to Satan and even Apollo. I would be as religious as need be.
On the morning of day five, I had a Zoom meeting with the specialist. From my laptop computer I explained to my urologist all the misfortune I had suffered. He told me to continue to drink water and that sometimes this can take weeks.
Weeks? But isn’t there some procedure where you can blast the kidney stones with sound waves?
“Yes,” he calmly responded. “But your stones are too low. This would shatter your pelvis.” Instead the procedure that would need to be done would be they would stick a hose up my dickhole and they would shoot lasers at my kidney stones so they could pass easier.
That sounded painful.
“You would be unconscious But yes it is uncomfortable.”
I don’t know if it was that conversation that finally knocked the stones out of me, but after a dozen more hours of moaning I went to the bathroom.
I remembered after my last kidney stone experience fifteen years earlier I’d had a scary conversation. One of the producers I worked for was an ornery sort and had a death threat. He hired a private security guard who I spoke with long enough that I mentioned my first kidney stone experience. He said, “Ooohhh kidney stones. That’s like pissing out razor blades.”
I had yet to feel such a sensation. My pee hadn’t hurt. It was only my stomach.
“It will,” he told me. “If it hasn’t yet it means you haven’t passed them.”
That freaked me out. That meant the pain could come back, but it hadn’t until now. But yet here I was urinating and the stream stopped and out came something I could describe like I was peeing out a razor blade. I looked down into the toilet bowl and my piss was tinted with a tinge of red. It stung a bit, but nothing like the rattling around in my kidneys. I kept my eyes open for a four millimeter stone. My naked eye could spy nothing. Please God I prayed. I will piss out razor blades for the rest of my life, just cast out the stones.
After five days of hell I was able to sleep through a night.
And now I write this down in the hopes I don’t forget. These are tough times. Maybe all times are tough, but in the future if things get me down, if things aren’t going my way, I’ve got to remember. Any day without kidney stones is a good day.