Getting shot with a firearm I assume is probably the most extreme form of pain that there is. It is placed high on my reverse-bucket list of things that I never want to experience. Short of that, however, I do believe that I’ve been able to simulate the ordeal of being shot by having suffered from painful kidney stones, not once but several times. I can only say that “extreme” doesn’t even begin to describe the pain that a stone inflicts on the human body. I am told that a comparable benchmark to kidney stone misery is the intense discomfort of childbirth. If that’s the case, then I have metaphorically given birth to at least five children, with the possibility of twins at least once.
Growing up, I was always fascinated by what my Catholic friends would tell me about the lessons they were given in Catechism class. Huddling close together in a small playground circle, I got to hear about the priest’s admonition that pimples, acne, and blemishes were God’s acts of divine punishment for masturbation and other mortal sins of a similar nature. Hearing this scared the living daylights out of all of us, no matter our own faith or background. Many, many years later when I was recounting my awful hardships with kidney stones to an old friend from elementary school, he observed with a dry intonation, “And you thought the priests were only warning us about zits, didn’t you?”
The first time I had a stone, I thought it was my appendix about to burst. I was living alone in my first solo apartment, and the pain hit sometime in the very early hours when I was asleep. It was very bad, though in hindsight not nearly as intense as those that followed in later years. I was more scared about being alone and something internal rupturing with no one else there to rush me to the hospital or call 9-1-1. I quickly tossed on some clothes and went out to my car to drive to the hospital, which was fortunately right in my actual neighborhood. I didn’t even have to drive out to a main road. Once I pulled into the parking lot, the pain immediately subsided and went away. Not knowing or understanding what was happening, I simply drove back home and went right back to sleep. I realize now that it was probably a very small stone that I luckily passed the very next time I went to the bathroom.
It wasn’t until about a year later that I had my first “official” stone, and another trip to the same hospital (this time taken by a friend) when I came to understand what having a kidney stone really meant. If we are taught in life never to forget our first kiss, our first alcoholic drink, or our first sexual experience, then I can also never forget my first kidney stone. As the jagged edges of the stone moves up and down the ureter, wreaking havoc on tissue, and causing blockage to the kidney itself, you come to the conclusion that simply dying might be an easier course were it not of the alarming fact that it would be a horribly slow death. So instead, you learn from that first stone that an IV of Morphine will be your only short-term friend in the whole world. All you want once you arrive in the emergency room is to be hooked up to that IV, and quickly. Relative sympathy for your fellow man’s misery is no longer a part of your chemical makeup. The heart attack patient three beds over, the motorcycle injury dude screaming out in pain? Yeah, yeah, get in line, fellas. My wails and retches are louder than yours anyway.
I have been prescribed with nearly all treatments for kidney stones from the insertion of a stent, the use of lithotripsy, to the less invasive method of simply waiting for the stone to pass on its own with a bottle of Percocet on the night stand next to your bed. None of these alternatives are very enjoyable — the urologist usually allows you to pick your own poison. When a stone does eventually pass, the only joy I get is to show it to my wife, co-workers, and family members. It’s just another part of my charm. Digital cameras and modern technology allow us to share the moment instantaneously, which in fact a friend and fellow-sufferer did for me a couple of years ago when he texted a photo of his stone that passed late one evening (Hi, E). He and I are in a kind of brotherhood for life. Move over, firemen and policemen.
The most bizarre and thankfully the quickest resolution I’ve ever had with a stone occurred when I was once re-upping with my cell phone provider. The irony of that wasn’t even lost on me at the time. I couldn’t figure out which pain was worse — having to get the Verizon pitch from the saleswoman about additional minutes that I knew I would never use, or sitting at the store’s counter in intense pain and trying to rush the poor woman along so I could still safely drive home. I made her print out the contact quickly so I could sign it, grabbed my new phone and beat feet out of there. I choose to believe that it was the fastest cell phone contract renewal in history. I arrived home in unbearable pain, went to the bathroom, and expeditiously passed the stone faster than you can say “Can You Hear Me Now?“. No morphine and no extended maintenance contract either. I rock.
By now I know precisely the kind of stone I produce (calcium oxalate) and the foods that I need to avoid. However, in my case I am fairly convinced that nearly all of my stones come from stress. The periods of my life in which I’ve had stones were all during difficult transitions such as marriage, changing jobs, or extra-familial conflicts. However, just to be on the safe side, I do try to stay away from kale, spinach, quinoa, peanuts, berries, draft beer, and all other oxalate-rich foods. Thankfully the most important nutritional grouping within the food pyramid: gin, whiskey, wine, and popcorn are not oxalate-producers. I therefore am fortunate that I can still consume these vital staples of my diet. <comedic drum fill>.
The true remedy for myself and all others who suffer from kidney stones is the consumption of water. LOTS of water. The minimum I should be drinking daily is a gallon, and sadly I am not (yet) drinking that amount. But I do try as best as I can, and each day I do think about how much water I should be consuming. It is now a life-long struggle. Curiously, with the exception of the herbal variety, most teas are oxalate-heavy and not recommended apart from one: green tea. Studies have shown that properties in green tea actually fight the production of kidney stones. So in addition to plain water each day, I try to have at least one cup of green tea in the afternoon.
Whether you suffer from kidney stones or not, drinking lots of water is beneficial for you. It can help control calories, energize muscles, keep skin looking good, maintain normal bowel functions, and keeps those all important kidneys in good shape. So drink water, folks. But don’t be a stoner.