I lay on the shoulder of the highway, vomiting until there was nothing left, trying to find some combination of limb and trunk and head that took away the pain. Sitting, kneeling, knees to my chest, on my side, on my back, face down in the grass and gravel and cigarette butts, fetal position. Nothing worked. I had never experienced agony like this. The broken kneecaps I'd had years before were mild in comparison. This was I'm-not-sure-if-I'm-going-to-live debilitating pain. If I were an atheist, this would have been making-deals-with-God pain. A cop approached. "Are you okay?" "No," I replied. I was about to take the most expensive ride of my life.
It was a warm July day, but not too hot, and two hours earlier, I had been trying to find my daughter's softball game in the "big" city (pop. 20,000. That's big for in my rural state). Her team had been knocked out of the tournament, so I left, and headed for the big-box building materials store. While talking to an employee I started feeling sick. I excused myself and went to the restroom. Nothing happened, but I was feeling worse by the minute, with a gut pain that made walking difficult. I cut short my shopping, paid for what I had, and limped out to my car. I only drove a mile before I pulled over. I wanted to make it home, to my small town (pop. 1,500) emergency room, but didn't.
The EMT's placed me on a gurney, for a $125 per mile ride to the big city Emergency Room. At that price, I guess I would have expected better service. I am not a whiny person. I am not a litigious person. When I get some bad grocery, I contact the manufacturer, and am happy for a coupon to replace the product. But this was a bad ride. I was parched, but the EMT's wouldn't give me any water. They put an IV in my left arm, and I don't know what they were giving me. But the needle hit something it shouldn't have. My arm was going dead, and the pain was horrible. I said: "You gotta pull that thing out. If you want that to make me to forget about the pain in my belly, it's working." So they removed it. (My arm bothered me for days.)
In the ER, at least I didn't have to wait to see a doctor. This was a little big city, not a big big city. They poked and prodded, drew blood, gave me an IV for pain, took a bunch of X-rays, and didn't come to any conclusion. I don't remember much, as I was really out of it. But as the pain meds took effect, I was feeling somewhat better. I called my oldest daughter, and she picked up my wife at work, so one could drive our car, as I was in no condition to. I told the doctors I wanted to go home. They wanted to keep me overnight, "for observation."
But beyond reducing pain, they weren't getting anywhere. And I didn't want a $1,000 overnight hospital stay, if all I'd be doing was sleep. (No insurance, this was going to be out of pocket.) And I was still thirsty. I said no, and they made me sign an AMA--Against Medical Advice--form. (AMA; now that's got a real double meaning for me.) So I went home. The pain meds wore off. It was a bad night. My wife, a CNA (Certified Nursing Assistant) at an elderly care center says, "Kidney stone."
First thing next morning, she drives me to the small town hospital. (I was in about as much pain as in the ambulance, except no IV, and at least it wasn't costing $125 per mile.) In the hospital's clinic, more poking and prodding, more blood work, more X-rays, and my doctor says, "Kidney stone." He took his time, like he always does, that's why I wanted to see him in first place. He showed me the little speck on the X-ray, and told me what to expect. He gave me a funnel with a fine screen, to pee through, to catch the stone, and sent me away with a couple prescriptions.
Ciprofloxacin, to prevent a potential infection, made me itch all over. I never had had a drug reaction before, but a daughter is allergic to penicillin. So I stopped that. $40 in the toilet. (Later, I asked the pharmacist if he could give the medicine to some poor person--poorer than me--who needed it. He said he couldn't do that. I have also learned that “Cipro” can really mess up your digestion. Glad I quit it.) The Tramadol, for pain, worked, sort of: "1-2 tabs, every 6 hours, for pain." I took two, and you bet I was taking them every six hours. It was worst at night, in bed, and before the time arrived for more pills, I was repeating the highway shoulder scene, but next to the bed: sitting, kneeling, knees to my chest, on my side, on my back, face down, fetal position. But at least no vomiting, and no grass, gravel, cigarette butts, or ambulance guys trying to paralyze my arm. Small blessings.
And was I drinking water. Lots of water. I wanted to flush that thing out. I certainly got tired of the strainer stunt. That was disgusting enough, but sure glad I'm a guy. But nothing turned up. I wanted to be rid of the stone, but I was, at the same time, dreading its passing. I had been told it could be very painful, especially as it traveled from the kidney down the ureter to the bladder.
Now, this is embarrassing, but in the interest of full disclosure, I tell the truth. The pebble popped out during sex. I still hadn’t passed the stone, but a couple days into the painkillers and all that water, I felt good enough for intimacy. Wore a condom. But felt something funny at "that moment." I thought, "No, it couldn't be." Told my wife. She says: "You better check it." So I dump the contents into the filter funnel, and there it was, like a large grain of sand, hardly more than 1.5 mm in the greatest dimension. "That's all it was?! That's what caused all that agony!" Well, was I glad it wasn't bigger, as I don't think I would have survived. I know that some kidney stones require powerful medicines, ultrasound bombardment, or even surgery.
It was also embarrassing to tell my doctor. I am not of the school of spill-all-my-sexual-secrets on Oprah or Jerry Springer. I am of the school of sex-is-a-private-thing-and-none-of-your-blankity-blank-business. But it seemed significant, and I trust him. The general practitioner put me at ease. He laughed, and said that's the first time he'd ever heard of that. And of course, it was our secret. (Now, dear reader, it’s your secret. Don’t tell anyone.)
The doctor told me to avoid soda pop, and drink more liquids, and "Go when you need to."
(Soda pop. Well, I don't drink a lot, but I have reduced my consumption. The news recently told how children are getting kidney stones, and pop is believed to be a big culprit.)
I guess I can't complain too much, even about the pain. After all, it told me I had a problem. Except for those broken kneecaps, in 20 years I haven't been to a doctor for anything worse than an occasional job-related physical, or for the removal of impacted ear wax. (Yeah, that's gross, too.)
My parents have had all kinds of costly health problems: diabetes, high blood pressure, joint problems, and more. Most of my dad's were related to obesity--he ate himself to death, I say--and I am in good shape and intend to stay that way.
I spend $25-$30 a year, yes, PER YEAR, on healthcare, and that's for vitamins. (Okay, dental care is another thing, but that's another story.) No insurance, can't afford it. So, $3,500, spread out over 20 years isn't so much. I know that people spend thousands per year on insurance alone, with huge deductibles. But still, it was no bargain. The big city doctors couldn't diagnose--with all their X-rays and blood tests--a common problem that my lowly CNA wife figured out, just from hearing my symptoms. It's the 21st Century, and the big city hospital, for all its bragging and corporate branding, couldn't email my X-rays to the small town hospital, so that the expense and the radiation dosage were both doubled.
But the weirdest thing was when it came to payment. The small town hospital--no problem--got the bill, and paid it. But the big city hospital, and ambulance, that was another matter. I stopped by the hospital one day to get my bill. I was unfamiliar with the layout, after all, it was dark and I was flat on my back on my previous visit. By mistake, I walked into a specialized cancer center. It was wide open, and there were all kinds of records lying about, and containers marked "biohazard" on the front desk, and there wasn't a person in sight. I could have walked away with computers, private medical records, and enough biohazard materials to start a bio-panic, leading to more homeland security, and maybe get Osama blamed and result in billions more taxes and . . . Well, my honest and cool head prevailed and I walked out empty-handed and found the right office. But you'd think they could have spent some of the $1,500 from my short and nearly futile stay on security.
I discovered the ambulance service was run by the fire department, so I called their office, and asked how much it would be. I said I was ready to pay, and they said they'd bill me. Well, I waited and waited, and two or three months later, got a notice from a collection agency! I had given them my correct address, a town post office box. But they had used the address of a place where I hadn't lived for two years, where I had never taken mail, and had used the obsolete rural route address, which had been replaced by 9-1-1 addressing. I was mad enough to call 9-1-1. The bill was $600. I found that collection agencies usually keep a third. So I wrote the ambulance service a strong letter, told them that since they had never properly billed me, and were willing to take a one-third loss, "Here's a check for $400; take it or leave it."
They took it.
It's been two years. I haven't been stoned again. I'm thinking about having that costly rock mounted in some kind of jewelry. I'm drinking plenty of liquids. I still pull over for ambulances, but as one wails by, I pray the passenger is getting a better ride than I did.
And for stones, I hope the next one I pay for is in a new ring for my wife.