Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Kidney Stones on the Fourth

Up until the moment I found myself throwing up in my aunt's bathroom, it had been a pretty typical Fourth of July. Visiting family on the Western Slope of the Rockies, my uncle and I had spent the day trout fishing on Black Mountain where he and my father grew up (see 11/26/09).

I assumed it was the 24 hour stomach flu rather than food poisoning, because we'd all eaten the same things and I was the only one with his head in the diagonal dimension diver. After doubling over with pain, however, it was time to visit the local hospital. X-Rays revealed a tiny pebble in my left ureter -- the usually fairly flattened fleshy tube that runs from kidney to bladder. Yep, you guessed it, a kidney stone.

Fast forward to February of the following year. I'm back in the hospital, only this time closer to home, with the equivalent of a gravel pit in my left kidney. Two surgeries and 21 days later I was discharged with the rudiments of a scar along my stomach that, when swimming with my Scout Troop, would make the younger boys ask wide-eyed, "Were you wounded in Viet Nam?" Not quite, but it sure felt like it at the time.

There's nothing like being a patient to teach you how to empathize with your patients. Vital signs at 5.30 AM and just as I'm about to get back to sleep, a smiling face says it's time for breakfast. Whoever suggested hospitals were a place of rest ought to have their head examined. The hardest part was having to cough after surgery to clear my lungs of mucus. When you've got a fresh incision in your gut that makes you breathe cautiously to begin with, coughing is pure hell.

It's easy to lose track of time in the hospital. When I went in, it was the dead of winter, when I got out, it felt like early spring. Morphine (the only thing that even touched the pain) not only distorts your perception of time, but also people. I was thoroughly enjoying a visit with a girlfriend one night when I realized she wasn't who I thought she was. No, I didn't tell her my mistake -- I may have been dopey, but not that dopey.

What made all of it bearable and sometimes enjoyable, was the care I received from the staff. They were wonderful, even at the crack of dawn. 21 days is unheard of now, and I was fortunate to have the experience. It's one thing to work with patients every day. It's another to do so having been one myself, knowing how vulnerable a person can feel, and how much difference kindness can make. Maybe that's why hospitals don't feel like institutions to me anymore and instead, feel a little like home.

(Creative Commons Image of kidney stone by Bradley P. Johnson via Flickr)
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