Sydney, Sisters, and Kidney Stones

I was in the doctor’s office, sitting in a regular chair, avoiding the examination table, when Dr. Matteson declared, “the stone has to come out. It’s too big to pass on its own.”

I had had a bout with kidney stones four years earlier. I was one of those lucky ones who never had any pain, just some other symptoms that announced the stones’ presence. “Okay, so can we do the sonic thing again?”  They blast the stones with shock waves in water. There’s very little pain and it’s a speedy recovery.

“No. It’s too low down for that.”  He drew a picture of what he was seeing on the CT scan, placing a big blob near the bottom. “This time the stone’s here.”

We debated back and forth as I had seen with my husband’s experience with stones that this invasive surgery Dr. Matteson was now proposing could be truly awful, and the stent worse than the stones themselves.  I did not want this surgery, period. I also explained it couldn’t be any time soon as the next two months I was traveling a lot for work.

Dr. Matteson countered. “I’m worried you’re on borrowed time with this. If this thing moves mid-flight, you will have quite a problem. You might lose the kidney.”

Oh, for Pete’s sake, I thought. Do we really need this fear mongering? I mean, I had zero pain. Zip, zero, nada. Most people would not have even come to the doctor. I had just a little bit of blood for a couple days—months ago!   And really, the doctor had canceled at least one appointment on me, albeit due to a snow storm. Ignorance was indeed bliss. How long had the mysterious stone been sitting there? How much longer would it lay dormant before causing a crisis?

The doctor and I discussed-argued a bit longer. He declared I was being difficult (I disagreed), then handed me the number to schedule the surgery.

As I drove home from the doctor’s office, I thought of my sister, Michelle, even though she hadn’t spoken to me in 30 years now. She seemingly had had a problem with her kidneys a few years earlier. I heard she almost died. I didn’t believe it at that time, because surely someone would have called me if my sister were really that ill.  But then again, nobody called me when my father died suddenly on Christmas Eve. Instead, it was a neighbor who heard of his passing on the radio, who called my husband, who informed me. So why, then, would anyone be more considerate about a sister I had mostly raised until I was 18 and she was 13? This is the other painful side of being estranged from family: I don’t get to know the medical issues that run in our family. Whenever I have to fill in some form at a doctor’s office about such questions, the pain of so many secrets, and all that I don’t kno, resurfaces.

So as I drove back home that day, I could only wonder just how serious my situation was.

I’m not a risk taker, and I do normally follow doctor’s orders. But the Sydney trip was the kick off to our summit season—Sydney, Dallas, London—back to back travel. It’s like asking a tax accountant to take off during tax season. Would it be career ending?  And who was I kidding here? I am my father’s daughter:  over achieving and never calling in sick.  For my father, it would be like missing the Super Bowl.

As exciting and exotic as Sydney sounds, it is one of my least favorite destinations. I’ve already had two traumatic trips there. On the first, my father-in-law died suddenly and unexpectedly.  On the second, my then 17-year old son threw a party with the police called to the house. Fortunately, so many of his friends had shown up unexpectedly, the ratio of beer to kids was low enough that nobody was puking when the police arrived. But still, my son scarred me for life, with a week of worry not knowing if he would get kicked out of his Catholic high school or not. Would this trip to Sydney be the trifecta – a trip to the ER or worse, the plane being forced to touch down en route in Hawaii as the stone moved unexpectedly?

My husband and I read up on kidney stones and the like. It seems they can sit there for months without moving. What harm would another few weeks cause? I ordered a homeopathic vitamin called Stone Breaker, widely used in Brazil and in China, willing to try anything other than surgery. I gave up chocolate for Lent, bargaining with God. (For me, giving up chocolate is like giving up air.) Dear God, please, just don’t let the stone move mid-flight. I kept an old prescription of my husband’s back pain medication in my purse wherever I went.

One snow storm after another seemed to push this surgery past the Sydney trip, anyway. There was an X-Ray to schedule, and EKG, and no multi vitamins allowed seven days prior.  All the signs seemed to say it was okay to wait a few weeks.

My back started to bother me the morning of the 22-hour flight. Was that from a run or is that the first sign when the stone starts moving?  I called my husband at work and asked how much warning I would get if the stone was about to move.

He said, “five minutes. “And then you are throwing up and need to go to the ER.”

I imagined an attack starting mid key note. Gosh, what a memorable keynote that would be!

As I boarded the plane, the flight attendant set down a glass of champagne and box of chocolate. Oh, the temptation. I sent the chocolates back. A bargain is a bargain, after all.

I willed myself to think positive thoughts as I sat on Manly Beach on my day off, memorizing my script. My back bothered me the whole week I was in Sydney, but nothing dire happened.

I was home for two days before heading back out to Dallas. The events chairperson sent a treat to my hotel room to thank me for all my hard work: a bouquet of cake pops, propped up in a jar of M&Ms. I scarfed down the cake pops, telling myself chocolate cake was okay as long as I resisted the M&Ms. That jar taunted me all week long.

Finally, it was time for the surgery, my few days home between my Dallas and London trips. I grumbled about needing to do this before another difficult conference, but silently thanked God I hadn’t had an incident mid-flight or mid keynote.

As I came to in the recovery room, groggy from the anesthetic, Dr. Matteson said, “It was impacted, so you’ve had some damage to the ureter. I had to put in a long stent and it needs to stay in for three to four weeks.”

“Impacted? So you mean it was never going to move?”


All that fear mongering for nothing, I thought. “Then we could have left it?”

He looked over at my husband, by my side, as if it say, is she always like this?  Dr. Matteson replied, “Noooo, you could not have left it. You were lucky. Usually, these things, you end up in the ER and it can be quite serious.”

I started crying then, wondering if that’s what had happened to my sister. The nurse blamed my tears on the anesthetic.

I flew to London two days later, sore and cranky. I could only take the pain medication for two days; otherwise, it turns your contact lenses orange. My daughter tried to cheer me up, “But, Mom, lots of people get colored contact lenses.”

“Blue or green,” I barked, “not orange!” I worried I would look like a werewolf.  I just had to suck it up and hope Motrin would be adequate. In a way, sitting on a plane and in meetings was probably the best thing because walking made the discomfort worse.

As dates would fall, the doctor decided the stent could come out after two weeks, a combination that Dr. Matteson was on vacation the follow week and that I lamented I could not take one more week of stent torture.

As I awoke in the operating room, the Thursday before Easter, Dr. Matteson said he was pleased with how things were healing. I asked him, then, “I still don’t understand why I keep getting stones. I mean, I drink more water than anyone else I know.”

He shrugged non-committal. “Some people are predisposed. It must be hereditary in your family.”  The remark didn’t sting as much as it might have, as if he simply voiced what I had been silently suspecting for the past month.

As Easter Sunday rolled around and I was finally stone and stent free, the Easter bunny lavished me with all kinds of decadent chocolates. They never tasted sweeter.











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