Vigo the Torturer
On Wednesday, when the alarm went off, I slowly unlimbered myself from bed and shambled into the bathroom. I took a piss – a fact that is in and of itself completely unexceptional. It’s the first thing I do most mornings. If I had been fully awake, or paying even the scantest amount of attention to the toilet bowl, I would have noticed the sickly brown color of my urine. Later, the doctor would explain – when you piss blood, this is what it looks like.
I made it a few steps out of the bathroom, bare feet on wood floor, when the pain started. It was uncomfortable and insistent, there, right there, on the left side of my abdomen. I ignored it. Part of growing up, of growing old, in my experience, is the barrage of indignities you must endure as you get up in the morning and your body gets right. There are creaks and cracks and pain that comes and goes, and it is all part of getting your motor running.
I walked down the hall, holding a hand to my side gingerly. My plan, my routine, was to shuffle into the office and check my e-mail and fuck around on the internet for a couple minutes, before I had to get into the shower and get ready for work. I figured the discomfort would abate.
I did not make it to the office.
Half-way down the hallway, the pain did not abate – it began to sharply increase. I grunted and doubled-over for a moment, leaning against the wall for support.
“Oh,” I said. “Oh!”
I turned around and headed back toward the bedroom.
“Honey,” I said, shaking my wife awake. “I think we have a problem.”
Now that it’s all over, I want to say a couple things about pain. In particular, I want to say a couple of things about this pain. I do not hesitate for even a moment when I say that it was, without question, the most extraordinary agony I have ever felt in my entire life. I’ve thought about how to put it – this pain – into words that would do it adequate justice. I don’t know. It was like two burly, offensive lineman types were playing a rigorous game of tug of war with a piece of red-hot steel rebar that happened to be speared through my mid-section. Maybe that’s an exaggeration, but if it is, it’s really not all that far off.
There’s that old joke that starts, “Hey, Doc, it hurts when I do this!”
There should be another version of that joke that starts, “AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH.”
If you twist your ankle or sprain your wrist, there are things you can do to alleviate your woe. Put a brace on it. Put pressure on it. Take pressure off. Ice it. Heat it. Wrap it. Leave it alone. You’ve got a standing list of options to help you manage while you’re on the mend. This, though – this anguish – this was pain without escape or relief. From the outset, I tried to stand, to sit, to lay – to contort myself into all sorts of different kinds of positions in some hope of finding even a momentary reprieve, but there was nothing. It was full-on. It was all-the-time.
I knew what it was. I knew what it had to be. The location, the pain, the severity – it had to be a kidney stone. It had to be. I had never had a kidney stone before, but I had heard the stories. Everyone’s heard the stories. The stories are all variations on the same refrain and they all go something like this: “I had a kidney stone. It was like giving birth, that kidney stone pain. I hope I never, ever have a kidney stone again.”
It was in the car, on the way to the ER, covered in sweat, shaking violently, sobbing – really, truly, weeping in anguish – that I think I started to come to terms with this. I was either passing a kidney stone, or I was dying. Or I was doing both at the same time.
In the ten minutes it took my wife to drive aggressively through city traffic to the Emergency Room, I tried in rapid succession to fall back on every piece of new-age mysticism I had ever heard. I was grasping at straws. I don’t know much about new-age anything, but it has always kind of existed on the periphery of my being. I have spent time in a bookstore downtown called Falling Waters. I went to Buddhist meditation session once when I was trying to impress a girl I wanted to sleep with. I gathered up all the knick-knacks of this existence up into my brain and I tried to apply it all at once in a ramshackle kind of way. I tried to control my breathing. I tried to escape into my brain. I tried to visualize. I tried to think of a spirit animal. I tried to imagine the pain away, away, away.
What total and complete bullshit.
“It’s going to be OK,” my wife said, holding my hand, as she turned toward the giant red sign that said, EMERGENCY.
“Nnng,” I said. “Nnng.”
While Nicki parked the car, I shambled into the ER like a zombie, my gait broken and awkward. My clothes were soaked through with sweat. I was shaking uncontrollably, like someone had run me through with a live wire. Nausea broke over me in great waves, and I had to stop every few feet to ensure I was not about to projectile vomit everywhere.
The nurse working the front desk checked me in, and told me to have a seat.
“Someone will be with you,” she said, like she was watching paint dry.
I groaned and compelled myself toward a chair in the corner. A few minutes later, Nicki sat down next to me. She held my hand and said again, said resolutely, that it was going to be OK.
Time crawled by. I waited. I stood up. I sat down. I cried.
In the moment, it can be hard to understand why everyone isn’t running around screaming, “Holy Jesus! Fuck! That guy looks like he’s about to die.”
I fractured my wrist when I was a boy, maybe 10 or 11, and I spent a cold January night in an Emergency Room with my dad in downtown Pontiac, but that recollection is fuzzy. All I remember about that is the neon-blue cast on my arm, and how I amassed a collection of expertly contorted coat-hangers to relieve that near-constant itch. It is a vague and fleeting memory, and did little to inform my expectations of what an ER visit would be like. What was I expecting? Maybe a cavalcade of doctors; a SWAT team of health-care professionals to descend on me with drugs and charts and medicine and care?
When you’re feeling pain you’ve never felt before, when you’re not sure what’s happening to you, when you don’t know if you’re going to be OK, it can be hard to grock the idea that everyone around you is just going about their business. In fact, paired with unmitigated suffering, it can make you downright rageful.
Fear? Pain? Suffering? This is potent, primal stuff. This is how Anakin Skywalker becomes Darth Vader.
A guy across the way was eating a hearty meal of scrambled eggs, toast and hashbrowns from a plastic travel container. The smell of burnt eggs and the sickly-sweet over-abundance of ketchup was overpowering. I was suddenly gripped by an impulse to grab him and shake him violently. I was dying. I was dying! How could he eat food? How could he sit fifteen feet away from me and pour packets of ketchup into his hashbrowns and shovel bite after bite into his mouth? How could he just go on?
A woman was standing at the nurses station, chatting idly and rummaging through her wallet, looking for something – her ID, her prescription card, her insurance card, a scratch-off lottery ticket, a picture of her pet fish – I did not care. I was suffering. I wanted to grab her purse and dump it all over the floor. I wanted to toss the thing across the parking lot.
Two security guards were standing by the door, talking about – I don’t even know what they were talking about – but they were not looking at me, they were not paying attention to me, they were not helping me, and in that moment, I hated them for it.
I squirmed in agony, and shot angry rays of hate out as the world around me turned on.
Once a triage nurse started in my direction, but was intercepted and re-directed toward another patient at the last moment.
“Sorry,” she said.
“Nnng,” I said.
The awful part of the story ends with Sonya. When the admission process was over and I had been spooned into a wheelchair and pushed down an anonymous maze of hallways and helped into a bed, there was Sonya. Tall and thick like a great tree-trunk and a great walking, talking force of nature, she came into the room and took charge. Mostly, this involved finally giving me a wonderful drug that I never learned the name of, but that she described as being “one better than morphine.” I’ll take it, because five minutes or so after she stuck a needle into my arm, I had started to feel OK.
I stopped shaking, I stopped sweating, and the pain diminished from a nuclear fusillade to a hum-drum pounding.
“Nicki,” I said, when I had regained the ability to form coherent speech. “I like her.”
Beyond her role as great harbinger of pharmaceuticals, she also, on a more fundamental level, cared for me. She explained what would happen next. She brought me a hospital gown to trade for my damp, heavy clothes. She rolled me down the hall toward my CAT scan. She brought me an illicit glass of cranberry juice, which almost made me vomit, but I did not care, because it was cold and sweet and bitter and perfect. She laughed frequently, a deep and soulful thing, and in doing so reassured me that I would be OK, that I would not die. Sonya saved me with grace and great empathy.
Finally, Sonya came back to the room and said, “Yep, it’s a kidney stone. Doc will be along shortly.”
When all was said and done, they sent me home with a prescription for Percocet and a collection of cheap wire and paper sieves. The kidney stone, I was informed, was still lodged somewhere in my ureter.
I was reassured that, at 3 millimeters, my stone was small and manageable. I refrained from mentioning that up until that point, it had not particularly felt like either.
“You’ll pass the stone into one of these,” the doctor said, holding out one of the sieves. “We need it.”
In this way, it turns out that passing a kidney stone is not entirely dissimilar from panning for gold.
“It won’t even hurt,” the doctor reassured. “At that size, once it gets into your bladder, you’ll pass it painlessly.”
“You’re sure?” I asked.
“Absolutely,” he said.
Then again, he wasn’t going to be there. I eyed the collection of paper sieves skeptically.
This exchange, as cataloged here, approximates the sum-total of my exposure to a doctor during my four or five hour stay in the ER. They’re busy people, and I don’t hold it against them – I mention this free of judgement – but, by God, let’s give nurses more money, huh?
When I got home, I went into the bathroom and promptly vomited everywhere. Then I went to bed and tried to be very still. The pain had abated, due to some combination of the magnificent narcotics and the progress of the stone as it sawed through my insides. I took a Percocet anyway, just for good measure.
For the next 24 hours or so, every time I had to pee I grabbed one of the sieves from under the sink, held it awkwardly over the toilet, and let fly. Every time I finished, I held the sieve up to the light and inspected it, looking expectantly for my kidney stone.
This entire process filled me with doubt.
What would my kidney stone look like? What if I missed it somehow? What if it wiled its way through the netting of my trusty pee-sieve? What if I never found it? Could it get lodged somewhere on its way out, waiting to surprise me some new morning? Would I have to pee into a sieve forever?
With each passing trip to the bathroom, this anxiety grew.
And then, the next day, I finished my business, held the sieve up to the light, and there was.. something.
And here’s the thing. Maybe I’m just speaking for me, but when something has so completely laid you low, when something has so completely humbled you, when it has reduced you to a shivering, mewling, raw nerve, praying for a quick death – you kind of want to be impressed when you finally lay eyes on it. You want it, in a strange way, to kick and scream on its way out the door. My imagination was ripe with images of John Hurt’s chest-bursting scene from Alien, except, you know, from my penis.
But this? This was it? This thing, that might also be a piece of dust? Or a crumb from the bagel I had this morning? I guess I knew that it was a 3 millimeter in diameter conglomeration of calcium would not really be much to look at, but still, I’m not going to lie, it seemed like a whimpering end to such gravitas.
I was grateful, honestly, yes, I was grateful – but I will not lie. In a way that defies explanation or logic, I felt sort of cheated.
Transferring it from the cheap, urine-soaked sieve into the little plastic container they gave me was an exercise in patience. There were several times when I actually thought I had lost it on the counter, or on the floor, or in my hair – but I did it. I vanquished my stone into an 80ML plastic sample jar and clamped the neon-orange lid shut, like an Ecto-Containment Unit from Ghostbusters.
It’s sitting now, on the corner of my desk, waiting for an appointment with a urologist in a couple of weeks.
My kidney stone is passed.
It had to be like giving birth, that kidney stone pain.
I hope I never, ever have a kidney stone again.