I woke around five in the morning with a radiating pain originating in the lower left of my back. I thought two things: 1. my appendix had burst (turns out: wrong side) or 2. kidney stones. In that moment, lying in bed writhing and grimacing, I desperately wanted the problem to be my appendix. This is because about a dozen years ago I passed a kidney stone and that was a kingdom of pain I did not care to revisit. So, I took a hot shower. I limped around the house. I slipped back into bed. For the next two hours the pain washed over me like a lazy tide, in and out. It was possible at times to even ignore it. Then, suddenly, it was decidedly not.
Recently I had just had a conversation with my friend Novak in which he lamented the cost of an ambulance ride. “Yeah,” I agreed, “that ain’t fun money to spend. You’d almost rather drag yourself to a hospital.”
That was a joke, but Novak could conceivably drag himself to one of Eau Claire’s hospitals, whereas I live in the sticks, the boondocks. The closest landmark I can drag myself to would be the Cleghorn Keg, and I’m proud to say that I’ve never hankered for a cold beer that desperately.
With that conversation fresh in my mind, I stubbornly climbed behind the helm of our Subaru and began the drive into Eau Claire. I wasn’t even out the driveway when the pain began surging around my abdomen and then lower down my body. Disturbing discomfort. For me, the pain presents itself like a deep, blaring, intense soreness that intermittently throbs. Imagine being tackled, full force by an NFL linebacker, imagine that hard, molded plastic helmet hitting your lower back. That impact won’t kill you. But imagine you just keep getting tackled like that, over and over, imagine the bruising, the soreness.
Now imagine that scenario but as you’re driving the dozen or so miles into town to seek medical attention. Never have I wanted to live in the city more. But there I was, taking the ridges and valleys of Hillview Road a little too fast, then driving west on Highway 94, doing what an old boss of mine called “the pain dance” in the driver’s seat, teeth clenched, seeking some sort of comfortable position while an imaginary NFL linebacker grinned devilishly and lined up for yet another shot at my spine and kidneys.
There was temporary relief when I exited 94 and drove towards Highway 37, but the relief was crushed when I spotted about five cars at the bottom of the exit ramp in front of me. They seemed in no hurry, and the traffic on 37 was steady. I sat in the idling Subaru and pounded at the steering wheel.
The Numeric Pain Rating Scale is an eleven-point system designed for a medical patient to assess their own pain, with zero representing no pain and 10 essentially representing an iron maiden-type experience. I take this scale seriously and would never say I’ve endured a pain greater than seven or eight, but as I waited, right turn indicator blinking patiently, my pain definitely escalated from a four towards a five or six. Finally, I turned onto 37, committed minor and inconsequential traffic infractions at the intersection of 37 and Short Street, and cruised onward, every traffic light representing a nexus of prolonged agony.
Another minor and inconsequential traffic infraction may have happened just south of the hospital as I “inadvertently” turned left during a red light and immediately hooked into the ER’s parking lot. At that point, I was sweating through every layer of clothing on my body. The pain was spiking at six or seven. I limped into the ER-admitting area and literally fell to my knees at the receptionist’s desk. She processed my information quickly and helped me into a wheelchair where I sat swearing a blue streak and occasionally apologizing to no one in particular.
Before I was admitted, a janitor entered that small anteroom and began nonchalantly vacuuming. He vacuumed within inches of my feet, even as I rocked back and forth in misery. I suppose he’d seen it all before.
Kidney stones are rarely fatal, but if you’ve had one, you may have wished they were. The ER nurse who took care of me that morning was incredibly kind and immediately began introducing a very powerful, very beautiful narcotic into my bloodstream. I felt the drug soothe first my legs, then my midsection, and moments later, I blissfully shut my eyes and slept.
“You’re going to have a baby,” the nurse finally announced hours later, “three millimeters. We’ll get you some painkillers to take home that ought to help.”
All that pain and I hadn’t even passed the stone. Like climbing almost to the peak of a mountain, only to awaken sometime later, at the base, some 20,000 feet below with a kind Sherpa telling you he’s got your bag packed and it’s time to start climbing again. That’s where I’m at right now. No less than four pints of water on my bedside table, three new medical prescriptions in my bathroom, and a three-millimeter baby moving slowly out of my body through passageways not meant for such traffic.
But at least I’m home again.