I suffer from kidney stone problems, and have had several stones over the years. Passing a kidney stone is supposed to be the nearest equivalent thing, in terms of pain, to having a baby. The worst pain comes when the stone decides to move out of the kidney, and can last several hours. Before and after, there can sometimes be several days of discomfort.
My last stone was about three years ago. When the hospital checked me afterwards, they found two more tiny stones in one kidney. These may one day cause a problem, or maybe not. It’s not an exact science.
The first time I had such problems, though I didn’t realise that it was a kidney stone at the time, was when we were travelling between Egypt and Sudan. An hour after the boat left Aswan, at which time we were anything from four to six days away from Khartoum and any sort of decent medical service, I had a problem. It really couldn’t have come at a worse time.
Amongst the three hundred Sudanese on board the boat were sixteen Westerners (Khawajas), including a young doctor from America. We were sharing a four-berth cabin with him and his girlfriend from Alaska, and he took one look at me doubled up, puking and in pain, and said, “It was probably something you ate.” That didn’t help much, and even though I wasn’t in great shape, he left me to tackle the rat in our bathroom by myself whilst he stood on his bed, holding his girlfriend between him and the rat.
The symptoms got worse the next day once we boarded the train from Wadi Halfa to Khartoum, as there wasn’t anything to drink, and we hadn’t taken enough water with us. At first, we didn’t have a seat, and the prospect of standing for two or three days and nights didn’t appeal. There was one empty seat in our carriage beside a soldier with a rifle, but he wouldn’t let me sit there. However after we pulled out of Wadi Halfa I offered him a cigarette, and he let me sit down.
The railway track south from Wadi Halfa was laid by Kitchener in 1897 and cuts through the Nubian Desert. Churchill wrote of the landscape, “It’s scarcely within the powers of words to describe the savage desolation of the regions into which the line and its constructors plunged.” For miles and miles there was nothing at all – no villages, no vegetation, nothing but sand.
Then, amazingly, at Station 6 which we reached at about 2am, there were two small brick buildings, and a surprisingly large crowd of people – some waiting to get on the train, and some women selling oranges and chai. It was impossiblle to tell where they had all come from, and what a life they must have, living in that godforsaken region. The chai was boiling hot, but because there was only one glass for everyone in each carriage to use, you had to drink it as quickly as possible. The chai made me feel better.
The next day, Lindsey and I moved through to a carriage occupied by the rest of the Westerners where at first there was a little more space. We sat two abreast on narrow wooden seats, facing two lads, one called Aiden from Ireland and the other one was from Newcastle. With four of us in such a small space it was fairly cramped, but at each ‘station’ more people got on and occupied every single square inch of space in the carriage. Eventually, there were eleven of us in the space for four! We were three abreast now, I had someone’s baby in my lap, there was someone behind my back, someone crouching in the tiny space between the seats, and two kids on the laps of the Irish and Geordie lads. The corridor was chock-a-block with people and luggage as well.
That day passed OK but by the evening my kidney problem got worse, necessitating going to the toilet every twenty minutes or so. It was very dark in the carriage (no lights on the train), and there was no glass in the windows, just wooden slats which let the sand and dust in, and also a little moonlight. I had to clamber over about 50 bodies to get to the ‘toilet’.
I write ‘toilet’ in quotes because it was simply a small, bare cubicle with a hole in the floor at one end of the carrriage. It had been reasonably clean when we left Wadi Halfa, but as the journey continued, with a couple of hundred people in our carriage and more onn the roof for two days and nights, its condition deteriorated considerably. And I only had sandles on!
By 5am the train was so busy that two passengers were actually travelling in the toilet, and I had to shoo them out each time I went. I wasn’t very popular.
After many stops, some to clear sand off the tracks, the train eventually got to Khartoum in the late afternoon, 42 hours after we’d left Wadi Halfa. I could hardly recognise Lindsey – she was so covered in dust and sand. Over the next few days in Khartoum, and later in Kassala, I was able to rehydrate, and started to feel better. I didn’t know what exactly had been the problem, and put it down to a reaction against some water purification tablets I’d used in Aswan.
Back in Edinburgh three years later I had a similar episode, though much more painful this time, and was diagnosed once I got to hospital with a kidney stone, which they gave me a shot of morphine for. The stone soon passed out of my kidney, and eventually decided to exit completely several weeks later during a library seminar! A few years later, the same sort of thing occurred. You start by thinking its indigestion, then you progress gradually to complete agony, you get to a doctor or hospital, you get a shot and some muscle relaxants, and after a relatively short time you’re more or less back to normal again.
So, when I started to feel the symptoms coming on once again one day when we were living in Gaborone, I knew what to expect. For a few hours, you really try to convince yourself its bad indigestion or something you’ve eaten. Then when you find you’re laying on the floor with your feet at ninety degrees up a wall, groaning and stretching in ways you didn’t know were possible to alleviate the pain, and you’ve already taken far too many of the extra strong painkillers you carry at all times, you realise it’s a kidney stone and you must get to a hospital. Of course, by this stage it’s usually the middle of the night.
We couldn’t leave our two lads, aged 1 and 3, alone in the house, and we didn’t have a phone at that time, so Lindsey got the boys out of bed and into the car, and drove me up to the Private Hospital in Broadhurst. By the time we got there, I was in so much pain that I’d contorted myself half out of the passenger seat window. This was definitely the worst stone, for pain. But I kept thinking “We’ve nearly reached the hospital. Relief is there. Not long to wait, now.”
So we arrived at the hospital, bundled the boys out and into reception as quickly as possible. The place was dead quiet and almost deserted, but there was a young chap behind one of the desks. I explained to him very clearly that I had a kidney stone, was in extreme pain, and needed to see a doctor straight away, really, straight away. He told me that he’d have to register me as a patient first, and asked if I wanted him to do so.
I was hopping about at this stage in agony, and I said that I’d do whatever was necessary in order to see a doctor absolutely as quickly as possible.
He switched his computer on. It took ages to boot up. He asked me for my details, and I gave them to him. My name was surname MacLeod, first name Roderick. He asked how to spell both names, and took about three attempts to get each name right.
“M A C L E O D”
[Typing very slowly, one letter at a time] “M A C L O D?”
“No. M A C L E O D”
“M A C L O E D?”
“No. M A C L E O D”
“M A C L E O D?”
“Yes! Now R O D E R I C K”
“R O O D E R I K?”
“No. R O D E R I C K”
“R O D E R I K?”
[hopping and arching back] “No. R O D E R I C K”
“R O D E R I C K?”
“And Mr MacLeod, Roderick, who is your employer?”
This went on for what seemed an extremely long time. With tears in my eyes, I asked him if I could just see a doctor, because I was in great pain. He said all patients had to be registered first. Eventually, he seemed to have all the details. Then he said:
“Before I finish the registration process, I would like to point out that there is a considerable cost involved in being admitted to the Private Hospital.”
I knew that, because of my university health insurance, I would only have to pay 10% of the actual cost, but by that time I would have probably given everything I owned to see a doctor quickly. So I said, as calmly as possible, “That’s fine.”
He replied “Are you quite sure sir? Once I press Enter, you will incur a cost. That cost could be….”
I’d finally had enough. I couldn’t stand it anymore as the pain reached an even higher level. I flipped. I jumped on a chair, shouted “LINDSEY! DEAL WITH THIS BOZO” and started barking like a dog as loud as I could, “WA-WOOF!! WA-WOOF! WA-WOOF!!!” It was all I could think of doing, at the time.
They don’t like people barking like dogs in quiet private hospitals in the middle of the night. The receptionist looked terrified. Maybe he pressed a panic button, or maybe it was my barking, but I heard some people come running along a corridor.
“WA-WOOF! WA-WOOF!” I continued.
Two nurses helped me down from the chair. “Come this way” one of them said, urgently, “Do you know what’s wrong?”
“Kidney stone!” I replied.
“Oh!” she continued, “When I heard the barking, I thought it was probably a kidney stone.”
We staggered down the corridor just as a doctor appeared, and he ushered me to a treatment room where, within two minutes, I was given a shot and some muscle relaxing tablets. A minute later the worst of the pain had gone.
So, the moral of this story is, if you’re ever in total extreme pain and need attention, stand on a chair and bark like a dog. Action will quickly follow.
A week later, I went back to see the doctor at the Private Hospital. He was from Cape Town. He said, “Ag no man, you difinitely hiv a kidney stone, ya. The bist thing you can do is drink more beer. Tell your good wife thit the doctor told you to drink more beer.”
“Kif!” I replied.
Well, aren’t South African doctors wonderful! You wouldn’t get advice like that on the NHS. I’ve been trying to do what he said ever since.
Loose ends: of the 16 Khawaja on the train from Wadi Halfa, the Swiss lad got off at Atbara, where his leather bag was stolen. We heard later that the police caught the thief, and were threatening to chop off his hand. We didn’t see the Geordie again. Aiden completed his six week holiday without getting to El Obeid. A couple from the Midlands tried to go south of Khartoum, hoping to get to Kenya where they were going to look for work as teachers. The war in the south of Sudan flared up, and they were turned back after a day. The same problems stopped us getting a travel permit to go south, so we went to Kassala instead, and later flew to Nairobi, where, at the Thorn Tree, we met the Alaskan girl who had by then split from her doctor boyfriend because he wouldn’t go anywhere and would only eat pizza. One of the Khawajas was last heard of in a campsite outside Khartoum, near death with malaria.