"I walked down to the river, stood on the shore
Seems like the Devil's always trying' to get in my door
Just when I thought I couldn't take anymore
Here he came again, my friend
He keeps sending me angels, from on high
He keeps sending me angels, to teach me to fly
He keeps sending me angels, sweet and true
He keeps sending me angels, just like you." -- Delbert McClinton
If anyone had explained that the only thing required to restore my faith in the human capacity for kindness was to have a kidney stone attack while in a strange town, be admitted to the local hospital where I would undergo surgery to have it removed, why I wouldn't have hesitated! I would have marched proudly to the head of the line, in fact, and volunteered, …to sit down and read someone else's account of their kidney stone surgery. I would have even invited friends. We could gather around the table, drink coffee, and read all about it. I'd be pleased as punch,…to read about it of course. Perhaps it was that willingness that did it, because The Almighty had other plans. And if you have a few minutes, I'd like to tell you about a community hospital staffed with some extraordinary people.
Having become something of a walking kidney stone factory in recent years, I was accustomed to the telltale ache from deep in the lower back. It usually starts off dull and increases to an alarming intensity. This time, however, it started at an alarming intensity and brought me to my knees halfway across the truck stop parking lot at the Flying J in Elkton, Maryland (close to the Delaware state line on I-95). Before I ever made it back to the truck, I had the 911 operator on the line. As per usual, I told her that my truck would be easy to find amongst the others because I would have the emergency flashers blinking for the paramedics to see, which they did in mere minutes.
As it turned out, the truck stop was less than a five minute drive to the hospital, so rather than occupy a stretcher, I just sat in one of the little seats in the back of the ambulance while the gentleman hooked up the automatic blood pressure machine and then, while I rested my head on my arm and tried to keep from throwing up, he started asking the required questions:
"On a scale of 1 to 10, how is your pain?"
"Where is the pain?"
"Right side, lower back, going around the front and downward."
"My male box."
"Do I get to keep this?"
"My arm." (The blood pressure machine was squeezing ever tighter on my arm and refused to let up)
"Oh, sorry. We're almost there anyway."
They helped me into a wheel chair and spirited me to ER and a small room, where a doctor would be with me presently. There began one encounter after another with some of the kindest people I've ever had the fortune to encounter. Determining that it was indeed a kidney stone, the doc asked me to put on the hospital gown, after which they would get the I.V. flowing and get me some relief. As nausea overcame me for the third time in five minutes, I heard the doc tell the nurse, "He's really in some pain there." Soon I was hooked up to the proper fluids and a dose of Dilaudid was administered, bringing with it that awful sensation of a racing pulse and static that seems to rush through the body, causing me to clutch my chest. In moments it seemed the world slowed down as the pain began to subside, taking with it my capacity to speak coherently, focus on anything, or process any information in a rational way. I was in a numbed stupor. I felt like a Congressman.
The remainder of the day was given to taking in fluids, trying to pee without falling over, slipping in and out of sleep as more Dilaudid was needed to control the pain, and listening to the sounds of the place. A drunk was wheeled in, slurring worse than even I could manage, and telling the nurse how he threw only one punch before his adversary evidently made easy work of him. Then he threw up. In a few minutes he was snoring like a jackhammer. A couple was shown into the little room next to mine and were having a grand time of it. I don't know what the emergency was, but all they did was laugh. A nurse checked in on them and began laughing with them. It was all fine by me, I like happy people as much as the next moss-headed drugged out imbecile, except that they kept waking me up. I vaguely remember being wheeled to the CT scan, and getting nauseated watching the ceiling pass by.
Sometime late afternoon, a doctor came in and took me by the hand, allowing me time to try to stop my eyes from rolling around long enough to figure out where he was. "Mr. Carter, the CT scan shows a 3mm stone on the right side. We're going to keep you tonight for observation and let you talk with a urologist tomorrow." Sounded like a fine game plan to me. Of course he could have said, "We're going to lob off your head and use it for league bowling night," and if it had but a small chance of keeping the pain in check, I would have signed on provided I could see where to sign. A short time later my bed and I were being wheeled through more corridors and into an elevator. "Note to self," I thought, "keep your eyes closed because if you look up at the ceiling while the bed is in motion you'll get sick…" which I did.
They brought me to the cardiac care ward, which requires its guests to all wear the latest in EKG apparel. Soon I had enough of those little patches with snaps attached to me that I thought I had died and come back as a pair of Levi's. Then they snapped little wires to the patches, which ran to a box of the size that would accommodate a hamster. They poked that box into my gown pocket and said I shouldn't remove the wires. I couldn't help but remember my dear Grandma Carter, who surveyed the multi-colored wires attached to her in the hospital once and announced that as soon as the nurse left, "I'm gonna light these firecrackers and get the hell outta here."
I was instructed not to try and go to the bathroom by myself at night, but to instead press the little button and a nurse would come help me. A fresh bag of fluid was hooked up to the I.V., and a fresh shot of happy juice dispatched me to la la land for the evening. Flat on my back, it was a deep, peaceful sleep, blissfully pain free after so many hours. There were no dreams, just …quiet. "BEEE DE DE BEEP!" The blaring sound nearly jarred me out of my skin. BEEE DE DE BEEP! What in the world? It was the I.V. machine which controls the rate at which the fluids are dispensed. I pressed the little nurse button, and a voice sounded, "May I help you?" "Yes," I said, "the I.V. machine is singing." In a few moments a nurse walked in and said that the machine was showing that there was a bubble in the I.V. line. She checked and found none, straightened out the hose and departed.
Now that I was awake, I realized that I needed to use the restroom. Sure, they said not to go to the restroom by myself, but I had no intention of going all the way to the restroom. I would instead stand next to the bed and use the little disposable container they used to measure my "output." Carefully I maneuvered to the edge of the bed so as not to tangle up the I.V. line with anything. My feet touched the floor when, "WHEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!" "Now what the hell?" I asked aloud. A nurse practically ran into the room.
"Mr. Carter, please call us so we can help you."
"But I was just going to stand by the bed."
"The bed is alarmed."
"What if I have a note from the governor?"
But the nurse very patiently assisted me and my singing I.V. tree to the restroom. All of this rest and relaxation was wearing on me and the pain went to spiking up again, so I asked for another shot of Pain Begone upon returning to bed. I settled back to sleep for another 45 minutes and then, BEEE DE DE BEEP! Rang for the nurse and told her that "the I.V. is yodeling." She came in again and reattached everything. An hour later, you guessed it. The insidious little BEEE DE DE BEEP machine sang its electronic lungs on the hour for the entire evening. The next day, still in pain and twice as tired, I volunteered to the day shift nurse to fetch a hammer from my truck and properly repair the thing. His name was Joe. The nurse, that is, not the I.V. machine.
Joe immediately produced a syringe of something or other and went to work on the I.V. He said he was "flushing it out." He could flush it down the toilet for all I cared, just so the thing would mercifully shut up. It worked! The machine lost its voice, and Joe became my new best friend. While Joe was tending to my next dose of pain med, a very young gentleman came in and shook my hand. He said he was Dr. Sausville. "What's your first name," I asked. I don't know why I asked, but I wanted to know the guy's first name. "Justin," he answered. I shook hands with him. Dr. Justin Sausville is a urologist. He explained that from what he could see, the docs in the ER had all made the right call the previous day. He offered to remove the stone surgically, in a procedure where they would go in through the urethra and smash the stone to bits using a laser, I believe. We agreed to see if the stone would move on its own that day and talk again later in the afternoon. I was struck by how incredibly young the doctor looked. When he left, I asked my nurse if Justin's mother was aware that he hung out in the hospital. "You don't know who that was, do you." said Joe. "No sir." Joe explained that the good doctor is major league smart (which was evident from just talking to him), and that he had been a champion on the game show Jeopardy a little while back, winning a sizable sum of money in his multiple appearances. "Well how 'bout that," I said.
Meanwhile, the battle of nausea and pain meds continued. Thanks to the newly muted I.V. machine, I was able to rest. Joe seemed genuinely interested in Ricochet, and I expressed this to Peter in an email which I understand later became a post. Joe kept going on about how happy he was to help me, and my hat prompted a conversation about military service in general. I was allowed to stand by the bedside as opposed to taking the singing I.V. tree to the restroom, and Joe agreed to keep the door to my room closed. I was just getting out of bed to answer "the call" when I heard a knock on the door. Thinking it was Joe, I said, "come in," just as my hospital gown was up around my armpits. It was my Aunt and my Cousin, up from Ft. Meade, MD, to check on me. Well, I haven't seen them in years, and I guarantee they hadn't seen me like that in a long time either. I yelled an expletive, and my Cousin Neal almost fell over laughing as he led my Aunt out of the room so I could re-compose myself.
We had a great visit. Neal is a major in the US Army. He and my Aunt Pat brought me a book, a get well card, some Peanut M&Ms, a helium filled Elmo balloon, and much merriment. We were in the middle of trading stories and laughs when Dr. Sausville came back in to explain some more specifics about the surgery. The good doctor was telling me that he might have to leave a stent in if there is any perforation of the urethra during the procedure. It sounded pretty serious when I started giggling. Always affable and hyper smart, Dr. Sausville nonetheless seemed perplexed. I pointed over his shoulder and explained that while he was speaking, I couldn't help but notice the juxtaposition of Elmo peaking over his right shoulder. Everyone got into the laughing then, including the doctor. We agreed that the stone wasn't moving, and that given the inflammation in the region, it would be best to do the surgery the next day.
When Joe went home after his shift, he again told me what an honor it was to take care of me,..which I found perplexing but gratifying. I insisted that he take the Elmo balloon home to his two-year old, which he was happy to do. There followed a difficult night as it was becoming increasingly difficult to stay on top of the pain situation. But at least my I.V. wasn't yodeling.
I remember the operating room people waking me up to some of the worst pain I've ever experienced. The surgery was accomplished, and they said that because the area around the stone was so inflamed that he feared he could never get all the particles of the stone out, the doctor had just pulled the stone as one large piece all the way through the urethra. This required the insertion of a stent that went the entire length of the urethra all the way back into the kidney. Now, when one is startled by intense pain, one typically contracts one's muscles, which is also known as a Kegel Maneuver. I did this involuntarily and went into spasms of pain and a veritable thunder and lightning show of curses. The staff responded with a suppository, so that at least there was symmetry in the burning, I suppose. They said it was for a different purpose, but I have my suspicions.
In time I was brought back to my room and turned over to the tender care of a lady who served in the Marine Corps. I forget the name of this nurse, and I will never forgive myself for forgetting her name either. It was a long, agonizing night, as the combination of I.V. fluids and the stent did their work. But I had to retrain my bladder it seemed, and the pain was enough to take my feet out from under me. I can't remember how many times I had to ring for that dear soul to help me, but I well remember that she was always there within seconds and worked herself to a fair thee well. Before she went home the next morning, I got her to stop and look at me while I thanked her and told her that she had been my angel in the hours after the surgery. It seemed she got choked up,…her eyes moistened and she said it had been an honor. But the honor was all mine, to be helped by such a good soul as this.
The staff decided to keep me around for a couple of days after the surgery. They said it was because they didn't want to release me to a truck parked some 100 yards from bathrooms and food. I like to think it was because they liked my pranks, but I've been given to delusions before. Alphonse made a brief appearance and ordered some "milk of gymnasium." Then there was the time I reached for an empty plastic urinal and accidentally knocked it half way across the room. Tired of bothering the nurses, I was standing by the bed, I.V. line stretched out, trying to reach the idiotic little thing with my outermost foot when a nurse walked in. "I suppose you're wondering why I called this meeting," I said to her stern look of disapproval. At 10PM one night, an elderly lady came in and said, "I understand you're a smoker." "Well, I enjoy a pipe once every few months," I said. "Then you're a smoker. Have you thought about using a patch?" For a fleeting instant I thought about answering that the patch won't stay lit in my pipe, but she seemed like such a dear lady that I couldn't bring myself to follow through. I still have the brochure she placed on my tray.
On the day that I left, my case manager at the hospital arranged for a taxi cab to pick me up and take me to a pharmacy where my prescriptions had been faxed a few hours earlier. Not only did the hospital staff send me away with a hot meal for the evening, but they paid for the taxi as well.
Today I'm comfortably recovering at a local hotel. The stent is removed and I can move about like a normal human being again. I've dispensed with the prescription pain meds and am using regular Tylenol. And, in an odd development, I've noticed that my beard is growing in almost completely white! Same with the mustache! If you can't beat it, then embrace it. I'll have to update my photo once the goatee has grown out.
I told the nurse the day I was discharged that I'm becoming somewhat of a comparison shopper thanks to recurring kidney stones that flare up across the country. I've met some fine people, but not one place has had so many people who went above and beyond in an effort to help me as the people at Union Hospital in Elkton, Maryland. From the Jeopardy champion doctor, who has scheduled followup tests and has asked me to return for a check up in six weeks, to the kind people who got me registered. From the ambulance medics to Joe the nurse, and that incomprehensively wonderful Marine lady. From the kind hearted nurse from Denmark who lobbied to hold me over another day to the intern who so carefully removed the I.V. and giggled at my silly remarks, these people were just incredible, and I'll always be in their debt. As the song says:
"Some say that it's coming, I say it's already here
The love that's among us through the joy and the fear
When I look in your eyes everything is so clear
My friend, here he comes again
He keeps sending me angels, from on high
He keeps sending me angels, to teach me to fly
He keeps sending me angels, sweet and true
He keeps sending me angles, just like you."