I once examined a kidney stone, fresh from my own bladder (albeit rinsed with tap water), and I was appalled.
The thing didn’t deserve to be called a stone.
It required a fair amount of exaggeration even to deem it a pebble.
If I hadn’t been looking keenly for anything out of the ordinary as I conducted that most prosaic of bodily functions I surely wouldn’t have noticed the object, and down the drain it would have gone.
Based on the level of discomfort this crumb had caused me over the previous day or so I was expecting something more like the business end of a medieval mace, the club with a spike-studded sphere intended to put a serious dent in a knight’s armor (and, ideally, his skull).
Frankly I felt that I deserved to eject an object which exuded menace — the sort of thing that would give you a nasty fright if you came across it in a dusty corner of your room while probing with the crevice tool on your vacuum.
Something I could have stored in a specimen bottle filled with alcohol, or maybe formaldehyde.
Something I would brandish on occasion, much as an athlete displays a prized trophy, just to show people what I had accomplished.
But this “stone” of mine provoked embarrassment rather than pride.
Most people, I suspect, upon seeing it would snicker — presuming, of course, that they actually could see it without having it pointed out, like one of those hidden pictures that give me a migraine.
I can imagine the ensuing conversation.
“That’s what all the fuss was about? I’ve dug bigger chunks of debris from my knee with a paring knife and didn’t even need a bandage afterward. You must have the pain tolerance of a Victorian baroness.”
I kept the kidney stone for a few months anyway, trivial though it was. I put it in a plastic cup smaller than a shot glass, and even in that diminutive vessel the stone wasn’t obvious. I set the cup on a bookshelf and one day I knocked it over while pulling out a book. I didn’t bother searching for the stone — I’d as well try to distinguish between dust motes in the carpet.
I had occasion recently to ponder kidney stones during the latest of my bouts with these tiny but tenacious products of a pair of organs which normally do their important work without drawing attention to themselves.
Which, of course, is what we want from all our vital parts.
My experience with kidney stones dates back about a quarter of a century. During that span I’ve been afflicted perhaps eight or 10 times.
The episodes haven’t kept to any sort of regular schedule — at least not that I can recall, although I concede I’ve never felt compelled to maintain a journal or diary on the topic.
As best as I can remember, though, several years separated two of these painful intervals. This was a long enough span that I once believed whatever physiological quirk infested my kidneys with these nasty little barnacles had sorted itself out.
But then the familiar dull ache would rise in the small of my back.
I would wait, as you do when any part of your body gives a twinge, and hope that the pain was ephemeral.
But eventually the ache would intensify until it felt — or so it always has seemed to me — as though an abscessed tooth had been implanted in my flank.
I have employed a variety of pharmaceutical remedies to combat kidney stone pain, both over-the-counter and prescription, but the only tactic that ever erased the agony was the one time I was given a morphine IV drip in a Salem medical clinic. The relief was blissful.
The stones haven’t quite returned often enough to prompt me to pursue more than modest medical intervention.
Back in 2011, after an especially unpleasant interlude, I underwent a CT scan which yielded disturbing images of my kidneys. They disturbed me, anyway. The doctor used the tip of his ballpoint pin to point out the white blips that denoted stones. There were several in each organ, as I recall. This would have been an interesting clinical experience, rather like watching a documentary, except that the kidneys on display were mine, and each bright dot represented potential pain.
The doctor referred me to a nephrologist, who ordered a regimen of unpleasant and in some cases frankly embarrassing tasks, among them bottling my own urine.
It looked for a while as though I would undergo a procedure called lithotripsy. This struck me as a curious mixture of modern technology and the sort of blunt force approach an exasperated shadetree mechanic might resort to when trying to dislodge a rusted bolt. The basic idea was to bombard my kidneys with sound waves that would smash the stones into what the doctor described as “gravel.” These bits would then make their way from the kidneys through the ureter to the bladder and finally to the outside world with rather less trouble than if the stones were left intact.
But I ended up missing an appointment for some reason I can’t recall, and nothing came of it. Probably I tired of the urine storage task.
The stones remained quiescent for a few years, and I returned to my regular status of complacency with only the slightest trepidation whenever a stomach cramp seemed to linger a trifle longer than usual.
And yet, having seen irrefutable photographic evidence of their presence, I knew those stones probably still lurked in their fleshy caves and that eventually one or more would, for reasons beyond the ken of science, begin its torturous journey.
In deference to lithotripsy, I sometimes dial up some AC/DC on my mp3 player — either Bon or Brian; I don’t believe it matters — crank the volume and snug the headphones against the small of my back.
This is much closer to alchemy than medicine, of course. But I figure it can’t hurt. And I hope the cretinous stones, despite the name similarity, hate rock ’n roll.
Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.