Passing a kidney stone: The 51-day journey of a magic pebble

kid·ney stone
noun

  1. a hard mass formed in the kidneys, typically consisting of insoluble calcium compounds; a renal calculus (i.e. a pebble in the kidney).

In the past 7 years I’ve had 2 kidney stones. The experiences were painful, but they were quick to resolve. My latest stone was less pleasant, a lot more painful, and took forever to pass.

Jan. 4. I went for a 15-mile trail run with a couple of friends in the morning. That evening, as I stared at the bottom of my toilet whilst relieving myself, I watched as a river of red flowed out of my unit. Freaked, I loaded up with water and the blood eventually thinned to a clear stream. BTW, don’t Google “blood in urine” unless you want to elevate your level of paranoia.

Jan. 5. The following morning I hit the greenway for a short 5-mile run with another buddy of mine. As we ran, I joked about Amazon’s Jeff Bezos being airlifted from the Galapagos Island following a kidney stone attack. Mid-run, I stopped to pee and everything was coming out normal. I returned home, showered, took a leak, and BLAMMO!, tomato soup.

Totally freaked, I hit up a nearby urgent care office where I peed in a cup, left a blood clot, and waited for the doctor to break the news. He diagnosed me with gross hematuria (visible blood in urine) and a UTI (urinary tract infection). He told me that if the medicine didn’t clear up the issue within 10 days that I should see a urologist for a CT scan to rule in/out kidney stones. He then went on for about 15 minutes telling me about runners’ susceptibility to kidney stones, causes such as dehydration, and that if kidney stones were ruled out then it could be cancer. Hey thanks for the pick me up!

Jan. 11. The following weekend, with no visible blood in my urine, I opted to run a 15-mile mile trail race (the same route I ran a week prior). No blood and no pain. Muy bueno.

Later in the afternoon, I took a nap with my son and woke up with immense pain in my lower back. I couldn’t stand. I couldn’t walk. And breathing was difficult. I did everything I could to keep myself upright before giving in and just lying on the floor for a half an hour. Once the pain had subsided, I loaded up on Tylenol and turned the heating pad on high. That’s the moment I knew I had a kidney stone.

The path of a kidney stone.
Image from Allied Metro Medical

Jan. 25. Two weeks passed and I was feeling fine. No blood. No pain. Then another episode of back-wrenching pain hit me, bringing me to my knees. Seriously, it was as though someone had whacked me with a prehistoric club and then kept pushing on the injury like a curious child. As I laid on the floor I searched the Web for urologists in the area and (after checking to see if my insurance covered the doc) scheduled an appointment. I was now a mere three days away from a formal diagnosis.

Jan. 28. The nurse practitioner examined my urine and sent me for a CT scan. The test confirmed what I had already suspected. I had a kidney stone. The nurse practitioner estimated the stone to be about 3mm. Not “HOLY SH**!”, but not “HOORAY!” either.

She then gave me my options; all two of them. Pass the stone or let the urologist go “in” with a laser. By “in” I mean I’d be given anesthesia and once I’m asleep the doc would insert a long tube into my member. The doc, then, would fire up a laser conveniently located at the end of the tube and break apart the stone (think Galaga), leaving a stent tied to a string behind (think “Ow”). After about a week, and after I had peed out the pieces, I would return to the doc who would then proceed to tug on the string to remove the stent. Easy as pie. Uh, NO!

Since this sounded horribly awful, and since I had passed a 7mm and a 5mm stone previously, I told her I’d just wait it out. She sent me away with a strainer, strong pain meds, and Rapaflo, and told me to return in a week.

kidney stone strainer

kidney stone strainer

Feb. 3. I returned to the urologist in just as much pain as before. The urologist sent me for an X-ray, and showed me the black and whites. He pointed out the stone currently sitting above my bladder, and even pointed out two others that were hanging out in my left kidney. “I wouldn’t worry about those. They’re small,” he said. To which I replied, “That’s what the last doctor said.”

He gave me the same options as the nurse practitioner. Again, not wanting a laser in my whowho I opted to wait it out. More pain meds, more Rapaflo, and another $70 later, and I was out the door.

Feb. 5. Frequency of urination made me feel like an old man. You see, normally when you have to pee your body sounds the “Pee Alarm” to let you know that the bladder is full. Now, imagine it was “Bring your kid to work day” and the guy in charge of pushing the Pee Alarm turned the controls over to his kid who proceeds to sound the alarm a million times every hour. That’s how I felt. Only, instead of the kid going home at the end of the day, the dad quit his job and the kid takes over for the duration.

So what does one do when the alarm sounds? Well, one could ignore the urge because it’s probably a false alarm, or one could head to the John to avoid the possibility of peeing oneself. The latter always won out and I’m pretty sure my utility bill suffered as a result.

Feb. 10. I returned to the doc for the third time with the same symptoms. Pain, frequency of urination, and pain. Oh, and pain. This time the X-ray showed the stone had moved ever so slightly. That’s when the doc started really pushing for surgery. Seriously, he really wanted me to give me the old “laser in the ding ding” treatment. I questioned his recommendation.

“Well,” he said reaching in to his grab bag of bad news, “ultimately it’s your call. But it’s possible that the stone is stuck. In which case, we’ll need to operate.” Thanks for the confidence boost, but I’m still not keen on the whole laser thing.

The next couple of weeks were a mixture of misery and normalcy. The latter was welcomed, while the former, though fleeting, came on strong and fast. It was annoying, but I figured my wittle bitty pebble would eventually pass.

I returned to running with hopes that the constant pounding would jar the stone loose and move it along my internal roller coaster. At times, I questioned my logic. Times like mid-run when I was doubled over, writhing in pain. Times like when I’d be running and all of a sudden I’d feel as though a thousand little knives were tearing up my insides. These times weren’t fun, but they didn’t last long enough to warrant the dingaling laser.

Feb. 21. By now, the pain was manageable. As in almost zero ouchy. So, I decided to follow through with a planned backpacking trip that would take me fifteen miles up and down the mountains of West Virginia. Sure, I could have serious complications in the middle of the wilderness and would most likely die and eventually be eaten by a mountain lion or a bear, but on the upside, the hike could very well be the straw on the proverbial camel’s back.

Feb. 24. I returned from the trip Sunday afternoon, and took Monday off to let my body recuperate. Monday morning I felt a sharp scraping sensation in my junk (literally, IN MY JUNK). Monday afternoon, more scraping IN MY JUNK. That evening, I felt a really intense urge to pee, went to the bathroom, pulled out the strainer, and readied myself.

Let’s pause for a moment to allow me to help you familiarize yourself with the suffering involved with passing a kidney stone. Imagine you have a straw (not one of those thick McDonald’s straws a thin one you get at the dollar store), and for whatever reason you’re trying to force a crunch berry through from end to end. To make things even more interesting, you cover the crunch berry with layers of broken glass. Now imagine what that crunch berry does to the inside of your straw as you force it through to the other side.

kidney stone under a microscope

The surface of a kidney stone under a microscope.
Image from Wikimedia

Right, so, I took a deep breath and began to push the pee out. My face winced, and I’m pretty sure I made several unmanly shrieks. Finally, after 13 eternal seconds, I gave birth to a 4.6mm bundle of joy (not 3mm).

In all it took 51 days from the time I first showed signs of having a kidney stone to that moment of painful joy when it hit the bottom of the strainer. And since you’re probably wondering, the most intense pain occurred in three places. When the stone passed into the ureter, when it dropped into the bladder, and when it exited through my shaft. But now it’s over. At least until the next time. Because there’s a 70% chance of recurrence within 5 years. FML.

kidney stone

4.6 mm kidney stone