40 ways to appreciate a kidney stone

At the er for a migraine

I wake up a little before seven with a sharp pain in my lower back. Just that old pulled muscle acting up again—but man, this time it really hurts. I gobble a bunch of Advil and hobble back to bed.

A few hours later, I’m up again. While the pain has abated, it’s still there, and I briefly wonder if I should mosey over to the Emergency Room. But no, I’m being a wimp. I pop a couple more Advil, pack up my computer, and head off to a café. It’s Monday—Memorial Day—but I didn’t make any plans, in part because I really need to motor through a bunch of work.

I’m eating my croissant and sipping coffee when the pain washes over me again. I look up from my laptop screen. This really doesn’t feel right. And yes, it seems silly to go to the ER because of back pain, but you know what? I don’t care.

Well, as you’ve likely figured out by now, this wasn’t just my ancient sports injury giving me grief. It was a kidney stone. I’m still not sure exactly what this is—something about a calcified something trying to find its way out—but I do have one salient piece of advice:  Refrain from getting one.

“It’s really good you came in,” said the medical technician, who started the IV drip to administer pain meds and fluids.

I hadn’t brought anything to read, but I did have my iPhone. “Holiday greetings from the Cooley Dick emergency room! Working hypothesis: kidney stones. #tmi,” I typed into Facebook.

Thanks to social media, I had instant company.

“I read a great essay a few days ago about how you can make difficult experiences better by crafting the story that you’ll later tell about them. Or something like that,” my writer friend Megan quipped.  She was talking about this, and in fact, I already was.

At the time the pain struck, I was finishing up a column for SecondAct about doing a Plan B Nation-style Happiness Project. The idea, of course, grew out of lawyer-turned-writer Gretchen Rubin’s #1 New York Times bestseller The Happiness Project. I’ve sometimes jokingly call Plan B Nation  “a Happiness Project for the rest of us”—for those who don’t already have Rubin’s picture perfect life—and I wanted to write about that.

But lying in the ER, my mind wandered to two of Rubin’s previous books—Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill and Forty Ways to Look at JFK.  And then: Forty Ways to Appreciate a Kidney Stone. The title just popped into my head, and I decided to make a list. (If you’re interested, you can read it below. In fact, I only came up with 25, but in deference to whimsicality, I left the title unchanged.)

Two days later, I was telling my writer friend Lisa about my misadventure. “I was so convinced it was that sports injury that I blocked out any other option.”

As it happened, Lisa had her own such story. Walking down a dark Brooklyn street a number of years back, she caught sight of three suspicious-looking characters ambling towards her. If you see something suspicious, always look at your watch. A friend had described having done just that after seeing a plane fly low over Manhattan’s Twin Towers. Now Lisa did it herself. In an instant, she saw herself on the witness stand, Law and Order style. She alone would have the facts! And then, she was mugged.

“Oh! I’m not a witness! I’m the victim!” was her first astonished thought.

You might say our minds have minds of their own. They assume “facts,” create stories, and often won’t shut up until they get us to act accordingly.  At times, this is a great thing. Our lives depend on it. But helpful as our minds may try to be, they sometimes lead us astray. Their first impulse isn’t always the right one. That’s why we need to keep them open.

Forty Ways to Appreciate a Kidney Stone

1. It wasn’t something worse

2. I got to meet the super nice super kind people in the Cooley Dick emergency room

3. I wasn’t out of town

4. I didn’t have the disappointment of cancelling holiday plans (had been feeling a little glum about not having any. Now I was glad.)

5.  It didn’t happen right before a work deadline

6. I wasn’t screwing up anyone else’s holiday plans

7. It gave me an opportunity to test my story-creating tool—and find it worked again

8. It led me to appreciate health in a way I hadn’t the day before

9. It gave me another way to reflect on the quality of openness that I’ve been mulling; the ability to see outside expectations. In brief, my initial tendency was to attribute this to a flaring of a sports injury. In fact, it was something different.

10. I told a nurse about Greenie pill pockets for her aging cat

11. I appreciated living in a place with easy access to medical care

12. I now know what these symptoms mean in the event they strike again

13. I know I should be drinking more water.

14. Another way to connect with friends

15. It gave me a chance to see that, at least sometimes, I’m getting better than I used to be about life not going according to my plans.

16. It gave me a sense that I’m not as much of a pain wimp as I’ve always thought of myself as being.

17. I didn’t have to take the heavy duty painkillers.

18. I had the heavy duty painkillers in reserve, which was reassuring.

19. Appreciate FB—didn’t have to call any one person but had community support, felt not alone + knew I had someone to call on if it turned out I did need help

20. Friends who offered to help

21. Made me appreciate insurance

22. Made me appreciate Mass, where health insurance is affordable

23. Made me appreciate my apartment—quiet, restful, safe space to recuperate.

24. Appreciate my car—that I was able to drive myself to the ER

25. Writing about this gives me a chance to connect with others—and maybe help someone else who ends up in this place in the future. (Research suggests that helping others makes us happier than doing things for ourselves.)

Copyright © Amy Gutman. All rights reserved.

33 thoughts on “40 ways to appreciate a kidney stone

  1. Hi Amy,
    I wanted to let you know that this post of yours inspired me to write one of my own, about my wife’s recent kidney transplant: http://theseekerblog.net/2013/08/26/25-ways-to-appreciate-a-kidney-transplant/ (It’s on my “other” blog where I post more personal writing.) It was noticed by the hospital’s PR people, and linked-to from their blog: http://medcenterblog.org/2013/08/the-seeker-gives-through-a-living-kidney-donation/
    You never know what a spark of an idea will develop into! Thanks for the inspiration.

  2. Ditto for my gall stone! It too reared its ugliness and mine on a holiday weekend – Easter.
    #26 Gall bladder was removed so I will NEVER have a gall stone again!

  3. Dear Amy (and I do mean “Dear”, despite my unfortunate behavior of the other day),

    I too have been having some somatic complaints, and have found my moods distorted by same. When last we met I was a tad hostile (mea maxima culpa), as a direct function of a deeply alarming week spent frequenting the neighborhood vet. (So you get the picture, this guy has a photo-portrait of himself examining a miserably fat cat hung on the wall of the reception area. AND, two cats live at the office all the time. Really?)

    So the first time, I had 15 teeth removed and parts of me shaved, because I have “bad saliva” and lousy owners, who are too lazy to brush my teeth. I came home feeling rotten, with antibiotics and pain killers. And the second time, the day of our misadventure, my older sister Catherine dragged me in so the vet could look at a suspicious something on my back. Despite all his experience the guy found it necessary to shave me, again, within an inch of my life so he could see it. Then he sent me home with antibiotics and pocket Greenies (of which you speak above) and the dubious recommendation that my family apply hot compresses three times a day for 15 minutes at a stretch (REALLY?).

    So I was not a happy puppy when you came in the door that day.

    And by the way, I went back on Tuesday (even though I started to shake violently when we turned up Mass. Ave en route past Simon’s to the cat-man’s lair) because I pulled a muscle and blamed Betsy for it and wouldn’t sleep with her anymore and she’s depressed. Now, thank God, I have the pain killers again and they’re back to feeding me human food and I’m feeling more frisky and smiling more. I am trying to let Betsy come around on her own, because she got way into my space over the pulled muscle thing—she hates when I cry. So I’ve been cautious about dragging my butt along the floor and humping random legs when I have an urge to dominate—to reduce her stress level.

    So you think you’ve had a tough week. Been there, done that, got the T-shirt. I wrote up my own Forty (well, 12) Ways to Appre­ci­ate Going to the Vet

    1. It wasn’t some­thing worse

    2. I wasn’t out of town—the vets on the Vineyard are too crunchy, and obsessed with irritatingly serene black dogs

    3. Led me to appre­ci­ate chicken, salmon and steak all the more

    4. It gave me another way to reflect on the qual­ity of open­ness that I’ve been mulling; the abil­ity to see out­side expec­ta­tions. In brief, my ini­tial ten­dency was to attribute this to having eaten some bad chicken, salmon or steak….. In fact, it was some­thing different

    5. I told the doctor to stop saying “Good Girl” and get a life, which was satisfying

    6. I know I should be eating more chicken, salmon and steak

    7. Another way to remind my family how much they can’t live without me

    8. Gave my owners a chance to see that when life doesn’t go accord­ing to plans their first priority should be me

    9. I got those pain pills and had dreams about having not been spayed

    10. Got Betsy to get off freaking Facebook and Twitter long enough to address more meaningful concerns

    11. Got Betsy to spend more time with me and less at that over-rated Simon’s Coffee Shop, where everyone knows her name and she wastes money on WiFi with her over-educated Cambridge friends all of whom wear headphones (Really? who pays for WiFi anymore?)

    12. Made me appre­ci­ate Massachusetts, where health insur­ance is affordable—leaving more cash left over for chicken, salmon and steak

    12. Writ­ing about this gives me a chance to apologize for my poor behavior, and to offer a believable excuse, thereby increasing the likelihood that when you come again you will still have Evergood’s cheese on hand.

    Love and licks from me, Wubby

    • Wubby, my most sincere commiserations for your veterinary ordeal. Something else to be grateful for (#13): you did not have to wear the cone of shame like my pal Remy, who came home with a deep gash on his paw and had to get stitches because some jerk left broken glass on the path at Fresh Pond.

      • Eddie–So nice to see you connecting with Angel. As I said to Angel’s person, below, I am delighted to see that I am creating community on this blog (and yes, good point: it DOES rhyme with “dog”!)

  4. Amy—this is just lovely. As you know, we had a few awful years recently, with the accompanying residuals—and I learned a lot about appreciating various things I had always dreaded. It comes with age, it comes with experience, and it definitely is not possible with generous and loyal friends. I love this post.

    • Thanks so much, Betsy! And now I must go read what Angel and Eddie have to say. They seem to have forged a real connection. So great to know that I am creating community on this blog. ;-)

  5. I also had a kidney stone. My list would include:

    26 . Morphine! The day I flew without an aeroplane.

    What’s Facebook?

  6. What’s with kidney stones and holiday weekends? I had one July 4th weekend of 2011. I still carry my expired bottle of oxycodone pills in case I get a relapse while on a plane! I am glad you are on the other side of the “experience” and are feeling well enough to write so engagingly about it.

  7. Wow, Amy, I had no idea since I haven’t been on FB much. Glad you’re on the mend and that you chose to write your way through the kidney stones and inspire the rest of us by doing so!

  8. What’s with kidney stones and holiday weekends? I had mine July 4th weekend of 2011 – first and only time so far. I still carry the expired bottle of oxycodone they gave me in case I’m on a plane and get a relapse. Great piece – glad you are on the other side of the stone.

    • Thanks Carol! And yes, so good to be prepared–I must remember to carry my drugs with me as well when I’m traveling. Appreciate your pointing that out.

  9. Who else could write about kidney stones like this?
    amusing, blithe, capering, clever, comic, comical, droll, dry, fanciful, farcical, flip*, flippant, frivolous, funny, gay, humorous, indecorous, ironic, irreverent, jesting, jocose, jocular, joking, joshing, laughable, ludicrous, merry, not serious, playful, pleasant, pulling one’s leg, punning, putting one on, ridiculous, salty, sarcastic, satirical, smart, sportive, sprightly, waggish, whimsical, wisecracking, witty, wry
    From what I’ve heard about kidney stones, I can barely even conceive of wry, let alone BE witty, wise and wry! Huzzahs, Amy!

    • Wow, thanks so much, Penny–what a list! I need to remember to refer to it often. And I’m delighted that “saccharine” & “Pollyana-ish” are nowhere in evidence. :-)

  10. Didn’t you hear??? Facebook makes you lonely.

    Okay, maybe not.

    I’m so sorry you were hurting. And I’m sorry I somehow missed that you were. Include me on your social-friend-network-tweet-peeps-feed, please.

    • Thank you so much, Jess! But we’re already connected, No? Or is there some super duper special social-friend-network-tweet-peeps-feed that I’ve yet to create and/or tap into. Quite possible! :-)

  11. Welcome to the Stone family, Amy. Dixie and I have both been to the ER with stones—-the relief from IV pain meds felt so good I begged the male nurse to come home with us and bring his rolling IV pole with him. He declined. A month ago Dixie had a 12 mm one “blasted” and it took two weeks for the resulting “gravel” to pass completely. I know, tmi…Here’s to a clear Xray for your birthday!

    • Thanks, Molly! Not sure a full-out systematic Happiness Project is in my future–I think it would make me nuts to feel like I ALWAYS HAVE TO BE POSITIVE. But it’s fun using blogging to reframe, which seems to come easily and naturally to me. We all have to find what works for us.

      • Does a Happiness Project mean that you always have to be positive? I would think it would mean to find something to be happy about each day. We can’t be positive about everything, although you did find an awful lot of reasons why a kidney stone wasn’t so terrible :)

        • Well, I do call Plan B Nation “a Happiness Project for the rest of us” so maybe I’m already doing one! In any case, it’s probably about as much as I can handle. No new projects!! Though I failed miserably in my effort to Do Less this month, which will be the subject of my next blog post . . .

  12. I had a very similar experience — dull pain that I attributed to an athletic issue … disappearing and coming back big big big. I too drove myself to the CDH emergency room where I posted my FB status as “At CDH. Kidney stones,” or something along those lines. And I vowed to drink more damn water. Here’s to you, my kidney sister!

    • Thanks, Rachel! Got the water right here on my desk beside me. Definitely hoping to avoid a repeat, however many ways I found to “appreciate” the experience.

  13. You’re amazing to be writing about this so soon after the fact. My wife had a kidney stone years ago and she was pretty miserable for several days (maybe something to do with the midnight ride to the ER and the associated loss of sleep). And I know (from experience) that it’s tough to find the “lessons” in health crises, so I love that you’ve done just that.

    • Thanks, Matthew–it’s sort of a two steps forward, one step sort of thing for me. I was feeling way better, then crappy again, now better. Back to the doctor tomorrow; hoping to have it all behind me by THIS weekend! Wishing you a very good one, and as always, thanks for reading & stopping by.

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