A Universe of Pain
Thursday, July 23, 2015
I’m no hard-muscled lumberjack, but I can, and do, operate a chainsaw. It’s a dangerous machine, but extremely efficient at clearing brush, and cutting firewood. I have a lot of respect for the thing, and use all safety precautions when running one: leather gauntlets, eye protection, and steel-toed boots.
I needed to get out my chainsaw last week, because beavers had been active on our property over the winter. There were three small trees that they took down, then abandoned on the hillside behind our cabin. I think that the things proved too heavy for the beavers to move. They took away some of the branches, but left the trunks behind. One trunk had fallen right across our main path to Tim’s cabin, so that needed to be removed, but all of them looked perfect for firewood logs, so I resolved to cut them up and stack the logs for use in our fireplace, once they have perfectly dried.
It took two afternoons of constant and strenuous work. At our cabin, operating a chainsaw is made even more difficult (and dangerous) because there is no level place to stand. Everywhere – the entire forest – is on the steep slopes of ancient Laurentian mountains, now crumbled down to hill size. When cutting trees, one is almost always working uphill, or downhill. It’s hard on the back.
By the time I had made the last cut, my back hurt quite a lot. But I was used to it, so I put my tools away, and finished stacking the logs. I planned to carry them down to the cottage later, to stow them underneath where they can dry.
I took a nice hot shower.
Dressing afterwards, I put on a pair of pants that I keep at the cottage. They must have been bought for me a long time ago, when I was somewhat smaller, because they were as tight as a corset! I tried to move, and felt a sharp pain, down at the place where I think the appendix lies.
I went down from our outdoor shower to the cabin, and changed into a looser set of trousers, but the pain didn’t go away. I lay down; which eased it, somewhat.
Maybe I pulled a muscle in all that work? Hard to say.
We were to have company for dinner. It was just family – Heather’s brother Ross, his wife Mary-Jill, and my brother Tim – but Heather was putting out all the trimmings: candles, wine glasses, the best dishes. I was to barbecue a fat, juicy turkey breast.
Well I made myself get up and do some of the requisite chores, but the pain got worse and worse.
All the same, I wasn’t going to cancel a fancy supper just because I’ve got some kind of cramp! So the company came, and we served a dinner. I ate very little, but tried to be as convivial as I could be.
We even played a game of Scrabble after dinner, which I won.
But inside I felt that if the pain didn’t go away soon – if, for example, it was no better in the morning – I just might have to go to the hospital.
And, as I fell asleep that night, the pain seemed to subside.
But at 6:00 AM, it was back, and worse than ever before. I had to go to the hospital, and quickly.
I woke Heather to tell her this, and asked if she would like to come with me. She got up and dressed immediately.
Going to the hospital from our cottage means taking the boat across the lake to the car, and then driving twenty-five kilometres – the first twelve of which are over dirt road and rough pavement – to the town of Hawkesbury, where there is a regional hospital.
I drove the boat, squirming with the pain. I also got into the driver’s seat and drove for a couple of kilometres before admitting that I could not and should not drive. We stopped; I set the four-way flashers, and got out. Whereupon the pain climbed a couple more notches, and my stomach began to heave with it. I stood there, helpless at the side of a dirt road, retching violently and repeatedly, but not bringing up anything.
I have had a lifelong phobia about throwing up. And a mental picture of people who were dying, repeatedly throwing up in their final hours. “Please do not let this happen to me!” has been a long-term prayer of mine... but this morning it began to look like such a prayer was not going to be answered in my favour.
I began to think that I was actually going to die that day, of some impossible intestinal catastrophe, and that I was going to spend my last hours throwing up.
Eventually it subsided, enough for me to get into the passenger seat of the car.
Heather’s driving in this particular vehicle is jerky. Mostly because the gas pedal is “twitchy” – causing the car to jump forward rapidly with the slightest foot movement. It has taken me years of practice to accelerate smoothly. Heather, however, does not drive very often (preferring that I do it), and her physical coordination has never been good, so under her control, the car jumps and bucks and twitches.
Which made the pain in my side seem even worse.
In between involuntary gasps, I talked to Heather about what to do if I should die.
We made it to Hawkesbury, and spent the next several hours on the Emergency ward, doing what you might expect: triage, registration, blood tests, blood pressure and body temperature readings, plus a long wait for a doctor, and longer waits for tests.
Shortly after being triaged, however, when I was giving my personal info to a secretary, the involuntary retching began again. I told the woman I was about to throw up, so she ran to some location at the back of her office and returned with a kidney basin.
Just in time. For now there was real vomiting – though what came up was merely bile, since I had eaten nothing for so long. But the retching was very loud, and I’m sure that it unnerved the other people sitting in the waiting room!
In due course the retching subsided, and I was called in, and put on a gurney 1 in one of the screened off emergency cubicles.
Eventually Doctor Raphael Bielinski – a handsome young man, impossibly young to my eyes – came in, and took charge of my diagnostics. He ordered morphine.
Heather has had morphine, and said that “You will still feel the pain but you won’t care.” Over the next two hours I definitely felt the pain... but I also cared about it a lot, writhing in agony as I failed to find any comfortable position, either prone or sitting up. I spent much of the time whimpering, trying not to cry out.
A shrunken world...
When you’re in pain, the world around you seems to disappear. You live in a tiny universe that is filled with this one searing inescapable thing. It is hard even to think.
For one brief moment lying there I did think: I remembered a story I once heard of a nun at the end of her life. She was, so the story went, in excruciating pain, and was seen to writhe and toss a lot (my own movement reminded me of her, actually).
Most important – and this is why the story is told – she was heard to mutter something that sounded like short prayers: “... for Mary;” or “for Richard.” Name after name came tumbling out in gasps. This woman was praying for others! Or, even more subtle and complex, she was asking God to use her pain as a substitute for the pain those others were feeling!
Hers is a story of deep holiness. I am not that holy. My whole world had shrunk to the surface of that impossibly uncomfortable and pain-filled gurney.
But after thinking of the dying nun, I tried from time to time to offer a feeble prayer for the suffering people of my own acquaintance. It seemed good to do, but it was difficult, and I mostly suffered in my own world, grimacing, with tears running down my face.
A nurse asked me to rate the pain on a scale of one to ten, and choosing excruciating toothache as “10” I rated my discomfort at “8,” and an hour later at “9.” An intravenous insertion of Gravol at least stopped the retching.
Dr. Bielinski brought in an ultrasound device, and proceeded to move the sensor around my middle, intently studying the images it produced, saying nothing about what he saw. I mentioned “appendicitis” and he nodded, and I mentioned “torn muscles” and he nodded, and when I said, “aneurysm,” he said, “No, not an aneurysm.”
Which was a relief, for not three months ago, a young woman of my acquaintance died at home, writhing in pain from an aneurysm.
He ordered a CT scan, 2 which was done about an hour later, with me writhing and often groaning while I waited, yet dozing with the morphine. Heather went off to move the car into long-term parking, and to find herself some lunch.
The scanner operator made three images, then, apologizing, said, “I didn’t read my instructions properly, and now I see that these images should have been done after... what’s the word in English?... an ‘enema?’ Yes. So I am very sorry, I must now administer an enema and take the scans again!” 3
So now I was in the fullest stage of the general indignity of hospitalization: buck naked except for an open-at-the-back hospital gown, and a woman doing something unmentionable to my insides. The discomfort of that at least took my mind off the primary pain that had brought me into the hospital in the first place.
Finally we were done, and I was wheeled by an orderly back to the emergency ward, to wait and doze and hope for some relief.
About 2:30 in the afternoon, Dr. Bielinski pronounced his verdict. “You have a kidney stone. It is less than 5 millemetres in diameter, so it is not the sort of thing we would operate on to remove. I shall give you some meds which should reduce the swelling, and give the urethra a chance to move the thing along. There will also be some pain medication in my prescription.”
Which he proceeded to do. Something was injected in my shoulder, and 20 minutes later I was pain-free! Such relief! I almost went skipping into the pharmacy to fill my prescriptions.
And I was hungry, very hungry.
Heather and I went down to a Tim Horton’s, where I gobbled down a turkey and bacon sandwich, and went online to send a note to all my children. I gave them a brief account of the above, and said, “I was slightly embarrassed to have only a kidney stone, when I had thought my end was nigh. But the pain was the worst I have ever endured.”
And it really was. Later, I learned from a friend, who has been a hospital nurse all her professional life, that she has cared for women who had kidney stones and have given birth, and such women uniformly say that kidney stones are worse than childbirth by a wide margin. My sister-in-law, who also has had both babies and kidney stones, confirms this.
Through this whole agonizing day, Heather was simply wonderful. She tends to show love by “doing,” so she fussed over me, putting warm blankets on me while I writhed on the gurney, removing socks from my cold feet, storing keys and cellphone and watch in her purse – constantly and totally solicitous.
Then, when the diagnosis had been given, and with the pain gone due to whatever was injected into me, and when I was skipping and dancing like a child, she became her more usual impatient self. Which only made me laugh, and I teased her about it – to which she laughed as well, admitting that her short-tempered and peremptory self is her “normal” self, while her solicitous behaviour showed that she had indeed been very deeply worried.
The pain came back the next day. And has been with me on and off for much of the week. Usually it would be controlled by the medication we bought that afternoon, though for brief periods it has been as bad as ever. It’s different, though, when you know what it is!
I’ve done some normal things: we went to church, and attended an outdoor music event. But recurrent pain, even at a low level, can prevent you from thinking clearly, so I did very little that required thought or concentration.
But I can write this today because the pain seems to have stopped, possibly for good. Certainly I have not been troubled for twenty-four hours. I can think – as much as I ever do – and write this narrative. I even practiced my clarinet today, for the first time since it all began.
I don’t know if I “passed” the kidney stone. I didn’t feel anything unusual go out of me, but I am very glad to be pain-free for now.
I have begun carrying those logs I cut with the chainsaw, down to their drying place underneath the cabin.
Saturday, July 25, 2015
Yesterday the pain came back with a vengeance. It was almost as bad as it had been that afternoon at the hospital. The reason, I think, is that I had begun to cut back on the medication, supposing that the problem was done, but clearly, it isn’t “done” yet! If it continues into next week, I shall go back to the hospital. At least the medication, once more in full dosage, is controlling the pain to a great extent, and I am doing most normal things.
Tuesday, August 4, 2015
Yesterday, the hospital receptionist looked perplexed. “Your appointment with the urologist isn’t until tomorrow. Today, as you may know, is a holiday in Ontario, and none of our departments are open!”
“But...” I replied, equally perplexed, “I’m sure the person who phoned me last Tuesday said, ‘Monday, August 3!’”
It was frustrating indeed to have driven twenty-five kilometres into town, only to find this! But the woman, having phoned the department in question and getting no answer, and having looked through her computer files, was adamant: “It says here, under your name, ‘Tuesday, August 4, at 6:00 PM’”
I have no idea whether I was the one who got it wrong, or whether the person calling me last week saw the first working day of this week and accidentally called it “Monday.”
There was nothing to be done. Heather and I began the return drive to our cottage, stopping for consolation at a roadside french-fry and hamburger stand (there is nothing in the world as tasty as frites, sold in little wooden roadside restaurants, here in Québec).
It has been more than two weeks of frequent pain and almost constant discomfort, and I was extremely happy that our regional hospital had set up an appointment for me with a urologist. I was looking forward to my “Monday” appointment quite eagerly, in fact, as the suffering wore on.
Not that I was going to actually be in the physical presence of the doctor. Rather, the Hawkesbury General has an arrangement with a urologist in Ottawa, that allows him or her to interview their kidney and bladder patients by video conference. But the thought of some additional trained eyes and ears on my problem had allowed me to hope for the best... and it was quite a let-down to have to wait another day...
Finally, today, the appointment took place. I was taken to a small room, and my blood pressure plus other vital signs were measured, and then I was put in front of a TV monitor, in which I saw Doctor Amiable, an Ottawa urologist. 4
The upshot? I’m to go back on Friday, when Dr. Amiable will be at Hawkesbury in person. He will examine me, and have X-rays taken. He says that chances are the stone has moved but it is not gone... so... he may have to go in after it. He did not say how he might “go in” - though I understand that it could be anything from ultrasonic bombardment to a much more uncomfortable procedure that I will leave to your imagination...
This is turning into “the summer of repeated trips to the hospital.” At least I have had no pain since last Saturday.
Four days without pain! Long may it continue....
Saturday, August 8, 2015
It’s over. Nobody knows where that kidney stone is gone, but I haven’t felt it for a week, and then yesterday, Dr. Amiable looked and looked at my X-rays, but couldn’t see it anywhere! So he sent me away, assuring me that he has forwarded the whole saga to my splendid doctor in Winnipeg.
Now, where was I? Oh yes! living in a primitive little shack in the woods, set on a sparking lake. Stacking firewood, as I recall...
Next: The Sunken Vessel
FEEDBACK AND COMMENTS
(This story generated a lot of comments, on FaceBook and in personal email and text messages. All of them were loving and supportive. The following is just a selection of my favourites:)
Karen (friend, in Hudson, Québec), August 5, 10:03 AM EDT (CA)
How do you manage to make the saga of a silly little stone sound like a PD James cliffhanger mystery?
Geoffrey (friend, in Winnipeg), 28 July at 12:09 PM EDT (CA)
I remember my ex bro-in-law, Ches had a kidney stone and me helping him climb into the back of his station wagon to drive him to the hospital. He was in so much pain, he couldn’t even sit in the car seat. I learned then about the agonizing pain of kidney stones. Hope you’re better soon!
Donald (friend, in Winnipeg), 27 July at 12:11 PM EDT (CA)
Feeling your pain Tony. Great piece of writing!
Brock (friend, in Winnipeg), 24 July at 2:23 PM EDT (CA)
Most importantly even with the excruciating pain of a kidney stone, you still managed to claim victory in a Scrabble game. A Harwood-Jones loses no Scrabble tourney due to something as minuscule as 5mm of razor sharp calcium oxalate!
Preston (a clergy friend in England), 24 July at 6:18 PM EDT (CA)
Ha. I love how you felt it necessary to point out that you not only played a game of Scrabble, but that you won!
1 Years ago, while in university, I had a summer job in the Toronto General Hospital, in the days when an “orderly” – the position I held – had considerable patient contact. I did personal stuff with male patients, while nurses’ aides did the same with females. I bathed men, I gave them enemas, I helped them go to the washroom, and I pushed prone people here and there on rolling stretchers, which we called “gurneys.” They’re still called “gurneys” today, as far as I know.
2 “Computerized Tomography” scanning is a sophisticated system for using x-rays to form exact pictures of internal organs. The patient is inserted into a big “O” which hums and buzzes, while the operator sits in another room, shielded from the X-rays; using an intercom to give instructions to the patient: “breathe in deeply! hold it! release!”
3 In Hawkesbury, Ontario, most of the population is French-speaking. This woman did very well in her second language. However, although she found the English word “enema,” she never did find the word, “facecloth,” and her equivalent Québecoise French for the thing, “débarbouilette,” was a complete mystery to me. When she finally showed me the cloth, I laughed and said, “such a big French word for such a little cloth!” which gave her and another nurse a good chuckle.
4 I’m not using his real name. I really liked what I saw of this doctor, but I may be quoting him incorrectly in this narrative, and he might not want to be associated with my version of what he said.