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Lessons From a Kidney Stone

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I thought it was the vegan pizza.

But how could something so good make me feel so bad? I lay in bed an entire Sunday, feeling nauseous, dizzy and guilty for not being more attentive to my 6-year-old daughter. "Angie, mommy doesn't feel good," I told her. "Let's have a lazy TV day."

By the middle of the night, things were worse, much worse. I was on the bathroom floor, rolling and moaning and clutching my left waist, where it felt like someone was stabbing me from the inside.

My boyfriend drove me (and Angie, since there was no one to watch her) to the nearest hospital emergency room, where the doctor ordered blood and urine tests, X-rays and CT scans.

"You have a kidney stone," she said six hours later. The nurse gave me a Vicodin, a small cup of water to wash it down and a plastic funnel to strain my pee.

The doctor was only partially correct. I actually had six stones, including one that was clogging my ureter, the tube that runs from kidney to bladder. Instead of moving through my ureter as it should, urine was backwashing into my kidney, a dangerous situation that sometimes leads to infection. Five others were lodged deep inside my kidney.

A week later, I met a urologist who explained how a laser surgery called ureteroscopy would remove the stones. He'd insert a scope into my body, use a laser to blast the clogged stone, then grab the pieces with a tiny basket. Afterward, he would move the scope and laser into my kidney to remove the others. The procedure would take an hour or so, he said.

On first try, the surgery didn't work. My ureter was too narrow for the scope, so the doctor rescheduled the surgery and left behind a stent, a foot-long plastic tube to stretch my ureter and relieve the pressure of the stuck kidney stone.

For two weeks, the stent poked me, scraped my bladder and made me uncomfortable, irritable and exhausted. I could barely eat. I was tired, but restless. When I did manage to fall asleep, I woke up two or three times a night to pee.

The hardest part was not being able to take care of my daughter. Kneeling at the bathtub to wash her hair was painful. Walking her to school made me bleed. When she hugged me goodnight, her squeeze pushed against the stent, sending sharp pains up and down my side.

After two weeks, the doctor performed the surgery again, this time with success. "No more stones," he said as my anesthesia started to wear off. I wanted to hug him. I still do.

As I write this, I sit on the living room couch feeling better. I still struggle to walk and I'm more tired than usual, but the pain is gone. The stent remains in my ureter to help with the healing process, but the doctor will remove it in just three more days. I can't wait to get rid of this thing. My kidney stone ordeal lasted more than a month. I missed end-of-summer parties, my daughter's back-to-school family picnic, and the most perfect beach days. But I also learned a few things.

It's okay to relinquish control and let loved ones take care of you.
I've always been the kind of person who needs to do everything, especially when it comes to my daughter. But for the first time since becoming her mother, I couldn't take care of her. The kidney stone pain rendered me too sick, too tired, and too overwhelmed to do my parenting jobs. So my boyfriend stepped in. James woke up at 6 a.m. to pack her school lunch, make her breakfast and help her brush her teeth. He even combed her hair and put gel in her bangs so they'd sweep to the side the way she likes. Instead of jumping up to intervene, as I would have done in years past, I just watched. And I think their relationship is all the better for it.

Sometimes strangers are kind, with no strings attached.
I've been going without health insurance since my divorce four years ago, partly because other things, like buying Angie's school clothes or enrolling her in art and dance classes, seemed more important. When I told my urologist about this, he helped me find an affordable price for surgery. He even waived his fee for the procedure. When I tried to figure out why a doctor would do such a thing, why he would essentially work for free, the only reason I could find is that he wanted to help someone who desperately needed help. This seems contrary to how the world works nowadays and maybe I'm naïve, but his act of compassion and generosity prove there are, in fact, people who are kind for the sake of being kind. And that is a beautiful thing.

Nothing lasts forever, not even pain.
Most kidney stones pass within hours or days, but mine was obstructed, and the pain was intense and relentless. It came in waves, like labor contractions, that lasted for several hours. I writhed on the couch, on the floor, in my bed trying to get comfortable. For the first time in my life, I thought I might die -- and I almost wanted to die, just to get relief. Each time the pain hit, I lay on the floor, focusing on my breath and counting to one hundred, over and over again, until it subsided. And it always subsided.

Sometimes your body has other plans for you, and there is nothing you can do about it.
In the middle of my kidney stone ordeal, I started a new job as an adjunct professor -- a job I had been looking forward to for more than six months. For a while, things were shaky. I wasn't sure I'd be able to drive the 40 miles to campus, never mind stand in front of the class and deliver coherent lessons. Luckily, the pain mellowed on my teaching days. Instead of standing, I sat. The students didn't mind. If the pain comes back, I might miss a day, but now I know there are worse things than being absent from work.

Just because you're eating healthy doesn't mean you are eating correctly.
My diet was good. I ate leafy greens like spinach and kale, nuts, berries and pumpkin, even a small piece of antioxidant-rich dark chocolate every evening after dinner. Turns out, those are all the wrong things to eat if your body is prone to stones. Now, I'm avoiding greens, skipping the chocolate and forgetting about peanut butter. I drink a lot more water and freshly squeezed lemonade and I eat foods that are low in oxalates.

Getting better is expensive, but worth every penny.
The medical bills are still coming in. My credit card is worn out and my savings are nearly gone. But I feel better. I gave Angie a bath last night. I washed her hair, helped her brush her teeth and tucked her into bed. And that is worth every single penny.

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