I’m no stranger to pain, having had thirteen bone fractures in my life. But my bout with kidney stones a number of years ago ranks right on top of the misery list. The best way I can describe the sharp stabbing pains is to imagine sliding down a banister that suddenly turns into a razor blade. Non-prescription pain remedies were about as effective as a Boy Scout troop trying to quell a mob riot.
The only thing worse was the treatment itself, known as a “Basket Retrieval Procedure.” While the patient lies spread-eagled in stirrups, the doctor inserts a teeny basket that looks like a miniature guppy net into the urinary tract in an attempt to snag the nagging nugget.
Now, since I get my medical care through the VA, I have to accept certain concessions in the quality of my care. For instance, the doctor who performed the procedure on me was a resident. The VA uses a lot of greenhorns to get hands-on practice before they go out into the real world where mistakes have real consequences. Upon reflection, I believe that my wide-eyed aspirant got the nod for this procedure because she did such a great job scooping out melon balls for the staff’s holiday party several months earlier.
I was awake during the entire procedure because they used a novel non-anesthetic pain-blocking method (more on that in a minute). The stones were as elusive as those previously mentioned guppies, and she couldn’t get the hang of capturing them cleanly. Instead, she resorted to wedging them against the ureter wall and scraping them down to the bladder. On a larger scale, I’m told this is how the Great Lakes were formed.
The VA rarely uses heavy sedatives any more. Instead, they employ an innovative approach to pain blocking: distraction. In my case, they brought in a large water globe, about the size of a soccer ball. Instead of the usual pastoral scene revolving in seeming harmony with “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” this one had a shapely porcelain statuette facing away from me wearing a scanty “naughty nurse” uniform. The anesthesiologist then flipped the switch and the fetching figurine began to slowly revolve as “Brahm’s Lullaby” wafted ever so softly throughout the room. My eyes began to glaze over and a deep sense of calm engulfed my entire being as I awaited the revelation of an angelic face beckoning me to dematerialize into an otherworldly state.
Just as she was about to reveal her comely frontal attributes, the entire operating room erupted with blood-curdling, Psycho-shower-scene screeching. Instead of the anticipated likeness of a heavenly angel, the grinning face of Hannibal Lector appeared while holding a rectal thermometer in a most menacing way. The shock immediately hurled me into a catatonic state, completely blocking out any sense of pain. It’s worthwhile to note that the Geneva Conventions banned this procedure long ago due to its perceived inhumane nature. However, the VA has gained a waiver for its continued use by successfully arguing before the Supreme Court that the distinction between military veterans and lab rats is negligible.
Getting back to the procedure itself, young Doctor Fetchit was becoming more frustrated since the stone removal process wasn’t progressing as smoothly as she’d seen in the Disney training film, “Daisy Does Day Surgery.” However, she did manage to jiggle the stone enough to break it into smaller fragments. At the same time, the shock was starting to wear off, and I was feeling a good deal of discomfort. So, she chose to leave the remaining rubble to nature’s own purging process. And, since I would be sporting a catheter for the next ten days, she reassured me that when I did pass the rest of the grit, I wouldn’t feel a thing. Yes, doctor, and I suppose sucking a broken beer bottle up your nose wouldn’t be any worse than a case of the sniffles.
I jokingly asked her if I could still have sex, and she responded with a deer-in-the-headlights expression. It was obvious she’d never been to Tijuana.
After ten days of feeling like a human corn dog, I returned to have the FDA-approved garden hose removed––once again by another young pup. When I sobbingly limped out of the clinic, I surmised that her major qualification for removing catheters must have been that she never met a lawnmower she couldn’t start with the first yank. Need I say more?
Moral of the story: Don’t get stoned.