Stoned

In a news release in July of this year, The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia declared that rising temperatures attributed to global climate change might be a contributing factor in the increase of people who develop kidney stones. In a study of more than 60,000 adults and children who were diagnosed with kidney stones between 2005 and 2011, a hospital team led by pediatric urologist and epidemiologist Dr. Gregory Tasian compared these diagnoses with daily temperature data.

“Although 11% of the U.S. population has had kidney stones,” Tasian said, “most people have not. It is likely that higher temperatures increase the risk of kidney stones in those people predisposed to stone formation.” Tasian explained that warmer temperatures foster dehydration, which contributes to higher concentrations of calcium and other minerals in urine that can help form the obstructions.

“Kidney stone prevalence has already been on the rise over the last 30 years,” Tasian said, “and we can expect this trend to continue, both in greater numbers and over a broader geographic area, as daily temperatures increase. These findings point to potential public health effects associated with global climate change.”

The case histories studied came from patients in five cities–Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles and Philadelphia–and illustrated, apparently, that, as the average annual daily temperature rose above 50 degrees Fahrenheit, the chance of people presenting with kidney stones within 20 days increased in all cities except Los Angeles. Whether this is because Angelenos (in health-conscious California) keep themselves better hydrated than elsewhere, or because Angelenos (in sunny southern California) are unused to much of a change of seasons, I don’t know.

But I do know, first-hand, about kidney stones. Passing one was by far the worst pain I have ever endured.

Worse than any childhood mishap or bicycle crash. Worse than any athletic injury–and I’m thinking back to a time when, playing first base, a left-handed batter pulled a rocket of a grounder right at me and the ball, after taking a funny hop, pounded my left kneecap. Worse than the time I was roughed up by being twice washed over the south jetty in Eureka; worse, too, than the time I dropped a massive rock on my hand. Passing a kidney stone was far more painful than the time, after stepping barefoot onto a threaded yarn needle, it entered eye-side first into my heel–replete with nauseating pop–and I instantly, if vocally, started improvising Chuck Berry’s trademark duck walk. It was worse than the several months’ worth of agony, 20 years ago, it took for both eyeballs to grow because of thyroid disease.

According to my wife–who has not thus far been afflicted–passing a kidney stone is rivaled in painfulness only by childbirth. I was at her side during the arrival of four of our five kids, and even though I helped her deliver our second–at home, alone, and waiting for the midwife–it required my own suffering to more finely tune a true appreciation of the event.

I had always heard that passing a stone was a supremely painful experience, and reasoned that it would only make urination temporarily excruciating. But I was wrong about that, at least in my case: I never felt the stone pass through my urethra; rather, during its eight-hour ureter meander from a kidney to my bladder, enough pain came in regular waves–like the contractions of labor–to render me an honorary woman. Even my mother, who has also delivered kidney stones, voiced a preference for me over them–although this apparently only pertains to the time when I was an infant. I’m held in similar esteem by my wife, except that–conversely–she is still waiting, she says, for me to grow up. For now, though, I’ll just declare a solemn vow never to pen such a ghastly paragraph ever again.

One sunny November morning a few years ago, a Sunday, my wife and I awoke with no further expectations than coffee and the newspaper. I suddenly sat bolt upright–as if stabbed in the back–and my wife, giving me a quizzical look, asked what was wrong. Now, she wasn’t angry with me, so, knowing I hadn’t been stabbed, I rather hopefully ascribed my discomfort to a combination of age and having slept “funny.” Except that the pain was not “funny” at all; I found, however, by laying on my right side in a shape approximating an S–breathing slowly and inert as a cadaver–that, with some wishful thinking, it would recede. “I can’t stand to see you this way,” my wife said. “What way? What the hell is this?” I asked. “Kidney stone,” she replied. “It’ll pass. I’m going shopping.” On her return, horrified to find me worse–slobbering, gibbering and groaning–she immediately spirited me to an urgent care clinic.

Here’s what filled the many hours in between: I lay supine, having just managed to roll onto my back, for an eternity–20 minutes–before crawling on all fours, backwards, downstairs to the medicine cabinet. But I found that movement, inexplicably, helped–so I crawled around the house, backwards, until the next wave of pain arrived. Luckily, on this lap, it coincided with a view of the bathroom doorway–so I only had to lunge at the toilet to get there just before heaving. I maintained this routine–except when relief was found only in stillness again–and stood, in the pose of an Egyptian tomb painting, panting.

The Darvocet and four Advils I had earlier downed merely bounced off. My advice? Drink plenty of water and appreciate the women in your life.

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