Kidney Stone Chaos

Inevitably, when you mention them in public to just about anyone, you hear something along the lines of, “You know, they’re the closest a man will come to feeling what it’s like to give birth.” With that said allow me to add: “I am so glad I am a man.”

I have had kidney stones once before, years ago, and they were not this bad. Three days ago, around midnightish, just as I climbed into bed, the lower left side of my back began to hurt. No throbbing or aching sensation. Just hurt. I sat up and twisted to the left and right, thinking I might have mysteriously hurt it somehow. A split second after that thought I realized that I could not stay in bed. I had to move because the pain spread like the ripples from a rock tossed into a pond–ripples made of fire and other painful stuff, let me tell you. Only, it didn’t really spread as much as it just intensified. The crippling fire in my left side stayed in my left side, but it gnashed at my innards and dug its claws into my kidney in a way that seemed to reduce the rest of me solely to that ailing organ. It was an eclipsing, incapacitating rush of agony.

Writhing around in the bathroom for about thirty minutes, shuffling back and forth between lying on the heated floor to hanging over the sink with my arms propped on the glass mirror, my second thought was: We’re probably not going Downtown in the morning (Noelle and I have been meaning to get down there all stinking week). My first thought was: I’m going to die in China.

Noelle, who by this time had also gotten out of bed, offered me some ibuprofen and a hot, damp rag to press on my side, began to get that big-eyed look of someone reaching that critical moment when they begin to seriously weigh the options of calling for help in the middle of the night. In most places—America—she wouldn’t have needed to do any more than drag me into the car and haul me into the ER, but as you know, we’re not in the good ol’ US of A. Instead, she dialed our immediate go-to person for all things China related. No answer. She called another number. No answer. She then began dialing just about every number in my Contacts list on my cell. I’m still waiting to hear back from some of those numbers. Those will be fun conversations. Yes, it was almost one am. Yes, this is the most important holiday week for every Chinese person. That doesn’t matter when malicious calcium harbingers of pain and agony wage war on your body.

She did manage to reach another Western teacher, and eventually—with much teeth-gritting, doubling over, and yarking up the day’s intake done by yours truly—we made it out of the apartment, walked the few blocks to the main street, and hailed a cab where said Western teacher gave directions in Chinese to the cabbie and instructed him to take us to the nearest decent hospital (yes, specifying decent was needed for reasons I may elucidate later). Ironically, during our last Chinese Language class, Noelle and I were taught the words for hospital, nurse, and doctor.

We get to the hospital and are barred from entering a room until we check in and pay the “check-in” fee. We are then allowed to shoulder our way through the plastic strips of material that the Chinese use in lieu of actual doors on hinges (a closed door is seen as impolite in public places traditionally) and make our way into the spacious yet unnervingly dingy looking check-up area. The walls and floors are dirty, biohazard trashcans stand sentry along the floor panels (most with their lids open and waste sticking out like a demented, germ-riddled parodies of Oscar the Grouch), and there is a distinct aroma of urine wafting from the doorless bathrooms to the right of us.

I can barely talk as another wave of nauseating, back-bending pain crests and forces me to writhe once more—this time before an audience comprised of a nurse, some sort of guard, and a doctor who seemed to vacillate between looks of intense concern and total apathy. Using Noelle’s IPOD and the English-Chinese App, I convey what Noelle and I had begun to suspect before leaving the house—that the pain is Kidney Stones. He seems to understand, but apparently there’s nothing he can do for me. He makes a call. Then he instructs us to go to another hospital. Seriously.

Noelle and I are incredulous. What choice do we have? Luckily, I guess, the guard sees or intuits our anxiety. He walks with us outside and attempts to get us a cab. No-go. At two in the morning, on a side street, not a one is in sight. Another stroke of luck finds us as a woman leaving the hospital offers us a ride—for 20 rmb (taxis are normally 8). We take it. I slide into the backseat, Noelle takes the passenger, and the guard hops in on my right. Along the way he asks me questions, and every time I understand him he laughs. When he asks if my side still hurts I grunt an affirmative. He laughs again. Before I simply kick him out of the car and into the intersection (in the fantasy world I’d begun to construct I was not in pain but being chauffeured around by my entourage) we arrive at the second medical care facility.

This time we check in without wandering around too much. We’re directed upstairs to what the nurse describes as the, “Stone smashing room.” This hospital is even more vacant than the other, and more dimly lit. We find our way upstairs and knock on the door with the English words “Stone Smashing” beneath several Chinese characters. We wait a moment as whoever in the room makes some noise and then cracks the door open. The technician is a thirty-something year old woman in slippers and a wrinkly white doctor’s coat. After miming and making our point as much as our limited Chinese can allow, she gives me a sonogram scan. The cold goo and not-so-gentle way she slips and slides the scanner over my stomach and back almost makes me regret waking her up. The cot with ruffled blankets and a pillow with a suspiciously human-shaped concave contour to it sit in the corner of the room. When she’s finished she tells us several things. All in Chinese. The only things I can understand are: I can’t see anything. Go downstairs.

We check in at the nurse’s station and then get directed to the Emergency Scanner room. This time we knock and another sleepy-eyed doc cracks the door only to tell us to wait a moment and then closes it. Five minutes passes before he lets us in. He does his test—the same one as the woman upstairs—and then prints off one sheet with two images on it. Handing it to me, he literally shoos us away with several hand gestures. Another violent wave hits and as we’re heading back to our friends the midnight nurses, I yark into one of two bags we brought for that very reason. Yay for forethought in the midst of pain. The nurse tells us we need to go to another hospital—the first one we were at!

We go. I’m a bit foggy on how we managed it, but we make it there.

I hobble out of the cab and we walk up the ramp, the same doctor, guard, and nurse from before staring at us as we enter the building. I show the doctor the images on the paper I was given and he nods knowingly, I hope. He tries to communicate with us again, but it’s a stilted, stunted conversation. I crack out the IPOD once again and type our suspected diagnosis. He nods again. Yes, we finally have confirmation that it is indeed Kidney Stones, but beyond that our line of communication breaks down. The doctor, guard, and Noelle and I just sit there for a few moments, the nurse moving about, having lost interest in the scene or resigning herself to the fact that I will die slowly and painfully, I’m not sure. That is until one of the Chinese staff members—one in a seat of power—returns Noelle’s earlier phone call.

From that moment on the night became much smoother. Don’t misinterpret that; the pain was still like a blender rearranging my side from inside, but things did happen that precipitated the demise of that pain. Wayne—the CEO of the School/Factory/Business combo—had not left Dalian during the holiday like everyone else on our staff. The staff member who called Noelle back got a hold of him and within half an hour he showed up at the hospital. Just before he arrived the nurse must have taken pity on me or maybe she wasn’t so keen on me dying after all. Either way, she stopped ambling around the large room and gave me a shot in the side, claiming that it would kick in within about 20 minutes.

That was a long twenty minutes.

As Wayne showed up another wave jolted my body. I put the second bag we brought to good use and then disposed of it inside the nearest open biohazard trashcan. Wayne and Noelle helped me to another room where they laid me down on a flat table connected to what looked like an MRI machine sliced in half. The table slid me through the opening and snapped a few shots, and then they ushered me out of the room. Wayne then went off to have a chat with the doctor. When he returned he informed us that he had wanted a second opinion and that was why I was given the MRI scan. I had two Kidney stones, he said. All the pain was a good sign, he added, and then told us we were going to go back to the other hospital to get them smashed.

He drove us back to the hospital (for those counting, it was our second time at the same hospital), checked me in, and helped get me upstairs to the Stone Smashing room. Again. This time her scan revealed the stones. Magically, I guess. Along with the stones I have water in my kidney and something (I still have no idea what) is inflamed–just in case anyone is reading this and saying, “You know, they’re not THAT bad.”  She directed me to climb on top of the table behind her and lay on top of an awkward looking collection of metal gadgets.

Sparing the details (for the best, trust me) of the Stone Smashing procedure, I will tell you only that it is not the sort of procedure you want your boss’ boss to see you undergoing. While I can bring to mind several more sensitive medical scenarios that are even more embarrassing, this one would at least make the top twenty when you throw in the particulars of the aforementioned audience.

Afterward, when the technician switched off the machine and told me to move over, I knew it had worked. The pain—which had been greatly diminished thanks to that shot from before—was now actually manageable on a civil scale. I still had soreness and hobbled a bit as I walked, but the gritting of the teeth had subsided and I no longer felt the need to crawl on my hands and knees (I swear I limited that to the beginning of the night when we were still in our apartment).

Wayne—the man is a saint—checked with the doctor once more. I was given an IV and moved into a room with rows of chairs and metal poles for holding IV bags. The IV room, obviously. Chinese hospitals are obsessed with IVs. Wayne told me this was the first of three, that I would have to come back over the next two days. During the forty minute wait for the IV to drain we stood by a window and talked. The sky was still dark, but threatening light on the horizon. I was told to move around to facilitate the movement of the stone, so I hopped from one foot to the other while the three of us chatted. Over those last two hours Wayne had opened up quite a bit to us and so had we to him. We discussed our lives, his recent surgery, teaching, culture, kung-fu, tai chi, and family. He gave us a ride home and told us he’d meet us at the hospital over the next two days to take care of things. He even invited us over that night for a family dinner.

Throughout those last few hours, during the moments between excruciating pain and yarking, I thanked him again and again for coming, for helping out so much, and for paying for all of the treatment. Without hesitation or any word to us, he had taken care of the charges. You see, in Chinese hospitals, if you can’t produce proof that you’re covered or otherwise insured, you’re not treated. And just today, as I finished my final IV, I realized that he also paid for the IV each day. I know it’s customary for one friend to foot the bill at a restaurant here, but a medical bill? China has its ups and downs, for sure, but I gotta say, working for a man like this makes me feel pretty darn lucky.

Noelle and I made it back home where we climbed back into bed around eight am. The sun was up, the birds were chirping, and the fireworks were already being set off, but we were finally getting to sleep. Thank God for a kind boss.

Somewhere on the lower right side, in that dark space, are two spots that should not be there. Those are those darn kidney stones.