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How My Husband’s Kidney Stones Passed Through Personal Barriers

Written by Casey Hersch, MSW, LCSW
November 22, 2021

“Every Problem is an Opportunity in Disguise”—John Adams

“Honey,” my husband quietly says, “I have this stabbing pain in my right side.” It is 11:00 p.m. and normally this time of night he is dead asleep on the couch, TV still blaring, until I wake him to come to bed with me. So, this night is different.

First, my husband, Scott, never complains about anything---especially a physical symptom. Second, I have lived with chronic illness and Crohn’s disease since we met, and I am the “sick” one---not him. Until that moment, our marriage was defined by me as patient, him as caretaker. I thought this rule was cast in stone—'til death do us part; however, in just a blip, life can plunge us into new terrain and challenge our expectations, roles, and resiliency.

I was not prepared for the night ahead. I was in a Crohn’s flare and feeling weak from anemia. Our stress level was unusually high. Less than twenty-four hours prior we had travelled to my hometown, burned to the ground by the Dixie Fire. For two months my mom and her four cats were evacuated and living with us. Despite the horror of watching most of the small rural communities in Indian Valley dissolve to ashes, my mom was ready to go home and start anew in a natural disaster zone. Given the past months, I thought I had met my quota for fair share of stress. I knew my husband and I were due a vacation to our living room, home alone. I was wrong!

That night my husband’s body screamed for attention. In the days ahead this turn of events would challenge our understanding of health, self-care, and relationship.

As Scott vomited uncontrollably and begged me to take him to the Emergency Room, my body flooded with adrenaline. During childhood, I marinated in a state of fight- or- flight.

On this night the surge of hormones that helped me survive my father’s late night drunken rages came to my rescue. I found the energy and mental sharpness I needed to prepare us for a speedy drive and long night at the ER. As he nervously paced, clutched his side, and let out agonizing moans, I tracked every move with the same vigilance I watched my parents’ reactions in childhood. The unpredictability of Scott’s symptoms and pain made me fearful and anxious.

I know how to be sick.

I don’t know what to do when Scott is sick.

I wished I could trade places with him.

Scott is a general contractor. He has cut off a finger, sawed through his leg, among other physical injuries to body and limb.
Many times he resisted going to the Emergency Room until I rallied my neighbors and called upon the wrath of The Mighty Mil' (his mother) to join my cause and force his compliance. Tonight I was on my own---driving in the dark to the ER, twenty miles from home, and on less than a quarter tank of gas. I always have a full tank of gas. Not this time. I do not like driving to unfamiliar locations, especially late at night.
I hate unpredictability.

Scott is my rock and tonight he wasn’t able to hold me up.

For six hours I sat in the dark Kaiser parking lot waiting for some news about Scott’s prognosis. Nothing but time on my hands, my mind got the best of me and took me on a journey of despair. Scott’s life flashed before me as I thought of the worst case scenarios.

Will he die? How long has it been since I said, “I love you?”

Surges of guilt flooded my body, and my heart almost pounded out of my chest at the mere thought I might not be able to apologize for how I treated him the days before. The stress of the Dixie Fire and a strained relationship with Mom left us raw and short fused. I took comfort in blaming my mom and the treacherous Dixie fire for the strain they caused our marriage. I even blamed my mom for Scott’s health crisis. After all, had he not driven her eight hours round trip to a smoke-filled apocalypse, maybe he wouldn’t have this stabbing pain. For a moment, I even thought of myself---how can I endure this stress? I am fragile and trying to prevent my own life threatening health crisis. “What if I am not strong enough to go through this with my loyal husband? What if I fail him?”

In attempts to escape from myself, I snuck in the ER despite COVID rules. I was appalled to find Scott still pacing the floors without any medical attention. He went to the water fountain and sighed when nothing came out. I saw an opportunity to assist and grabbed my water bottle from my purse. For a moment I felt useful as my water relieved his parched lips and the vomit taste in his mouth.

An angry staff person ruined our moment when he reprimanded me for giving water---“Water is medicine,” they bellowed, “Only doctors give water in the ER.” He also added that COVID policy required the deactivation of all water fountains. I wanted to scoop up my husband and flee the facility, but I knew I could not ease his pain. We had to stay and wait it out. I had to watch him suffer---and that he did for two long hours before he received pain meds and a place to lie down.

As dark turned to daylight, I received a phone call from the ER nurse. Scott had kidney stones---apparently a common condition in males. The likely cause in my husband’s situation was dehydration…

The protocol was simple: fight the pain with medications, wait, drink lots of water, and pass the stones through urination. Over the enduring course of two weeks, Scott passed five kidney stones, which for some is equivalent in pain level to birthing five elephant babies.

As I reflect back on this incident, I believe that those stones breaking free from Scott’s kidneys similarly shook up some debris in our lives and relationship.

Simple Preventive Measures Go the Distance:

When the doctor says to drink eight glasses of water per day, we should listen. This simple magical natural medicine is crucial for all of our body functions. Coffee, soft drinks, even juice are not substitutes for water. If we do not drink enough water, our urine concentrates---which contributes to crystals forming. I am drinking more water than I used to, having watched Scott endure such immeasurable pain. Our bodies give us the opportunity to experience life in physical form. Shouldn’t we honor its needs and give it the right fuel?

Sitting in Silence:

Many times the medication could not control Scott’s pain and nothing could contain my anxiety. When we both reached our capacities for emotional and physical suffering, we sat in silence. The power of going inward and finding spiritual peace from within is oftentimes the only antidote we have to get through difficult situations. Deep breaths focus us on the present moment and relax the body. Sometimes the anticipation, stress response, and future orientation worsen suffering. When you take these factors out of the equation, the body is much better at managing pain and coping.

Asking for Help:

I am a stubborn woman. I do not like to admit when I am scared or feeling helpless. I never want to burden others with my problems. Even though I worried I was bothering a friend by calling her after midnight, I put my needs first and rid myself of those negative voices in my head. I picked up the phone and dialed her number. To my pleasant surprise, she not only comforted me with kind words, but she stayed on the phone with me when I drove to the gas station. Asking for help takes courage because you admit vulnerability. However, when we choose authenticity, people can relate to a shared experience. We all know what it feels like to be scared and alone. If you don’t ask, how can angels appear?

When In Doubt, Try Again and Don’t Take Things Personal:

When people do not feel well, they are irritable, difficult to please, and sometimes just plain rude. Scott rejected almost every food and drink item I offered ---applesauce, pudding, broth, yogurt, juice, and even popsicles. He also rejected my attempts to comfort him with touch and distractions. Since I do not like to cook, when I made a homemade beef stew and he rejected my labor of love, it was hard for me not to take his reactions personally. After all, I was trying my best through my love language of service to show him how much I cared. However, when we are in a caretaker role, we need to remember it is not about us. Pain and symptoms are talking for the patient, and the best way to proceed is by putting our egos aside and to keep trying.

Relationships Struggle During Health Crises:

The problems that exist in a relationship, and all relationships have problems, are particularly heightened during a health crisis. My marriage has communication gaps---and when Scott was ill, the gaps were much more noticeable. I wanted him to talk to me and tell me how he felt, what was working, and what wasn’t, but he couldn’t communicate to me. His way of coping was to “shut down” and shut out the world. I needed to stay constantly engaged with him as a way to manage my own internal angst. During his struggle, I had to put my own needs for attention and validation aside and manage my anxiety through other outlets. Part of being in a relationship is giving the other person what they need and knowing when their needs are more important than your own.

The Value of Forgiveness and Acceptance:

Even while Scott was sick, our frustration toward each other built. At times I wanted to walk out even tell him “I told you so!” I harbored anger that he did not listen to me for years when I told him he needed to drink more water. I was even particularly hard on myself---guilty that I couldn’t fully submerge my needs for reassurance while he was sick, guilty that I might have disrupted his sleep a few times too many by continuing my normal routine, and guilty that I let my frustration even seep in during his more vulnerable times. Alas, forgiveness and acceptance are what make relationships work, and I am working every day on letting go of the expectations I place on my loved ones and myself. No one is perfect.

Scott is healing and I am grateful. To my surprise, I seem to be healing also. I feel as though I passed a few stones of my own. Sometimes when we live with trauma histories, current events can reignite our past traumas. Scott’s illness brought many of my insecurities and fears to the surface and gave me ample opportunities to clear out some debris.