Joe Nathan column: Helping you avoid the most awful, intense pain of my life

Joe Nathan

Joe Nathan

 This column has one purpose: to help you avoid the most intense, excruciating pain I’ve ever experienced in my almost 68 years of life – from kidney stones.

In an online video, Dr. William Haley, a Mayo Clinic physician, calls this pain “legendary.”

A Health Partners nurse, whose name I’ve unfortunately lost, who had given birth and had kidney stones agreed that “the pain of kidney stones was worse.” Fortunately, there are simple, cheap ways to dramatically decrease the likelihood that you’ll experience kidney stones.

Before explaining what doctors recommend, let’s go back to the late December 2016 day when suddenly I knew something was really wrong. I was at a meeting when I felt a strong pain below my stomach.

I drove myself to a local hospital, which turned out to be a mistake; hospital staff told me that people who arrived in ambulances were a higher priority for treatment. I was hoping to save money by driving myself – but this ended up with me sitting in the hospital emergency room for more than three hours in pain so powerful that I was moaning and then pleading for help. (Not to be overly dramatic, but this has never before happened in my life.)

Apparently, this was a bad day for the hospital as lots of people were coming in. My wife arrived and she also asked if someone could see me. Literally hours went by.

Finally, I called another hospital, which explained that their priority was treating people who arrived by ambulance. So I called an ambulance and waited a block away from the hospital, since the ambulance would not pick me up there. I was doubled over and moaning in pain. A man who appeared to be homeless saw me and asked if I was OK. “No, we’ve called an ambulance,” I stammered.

A few minutes later an ambulance arrived. Within an hour, a Regions Hospital doctor arranged for an X-ray, reviewed it and confirmed that I had kidney stones. Over the next week, I took various medicines and ultimately passed two stones. Since then I’ve followed doctors’ instructions to avoid this ever happening again.

Unfortunately, the National Kidney Stone Foundation and a medical journal both report that, as the foundation explains, “Recent studies have shown that kidney stone rates are on the rise across the country.” One study found that the increase is greater among children and women.

In an online statement, the National Kidney Foundation recommends what local doctors have also told me: “One of the best measures you can take to avoid kidney stones is to drink plenty of water.” That and other simple suggestions are found here: The brief video in which Mayo Clinic physicians describe kidney stones and offer suggestions is here:

Usually I write about learning, teaching and schools. Today I’m describing some of the most powerful, painful lessons I’ve learned in my life. Please consider checking with your doctor about kidney stones. This is not something you want to experience, either yourself or by your family members.


Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, is director of the Center for School Change. Reactions are welcome at [email protected].


3 Responses to Joe Nathan column: Helping you avoid the most awful, intense pain of my life

  1. Mark Real says:

    Thanks for sharing your painful experience. The links you provided are quite helpful.
    Another proactive step is to ask family members to disclose if they have had kidney stones and then to share that information with your primary care provider. That will enable persons at risk to be proactive in preventing stones.

  2. Jon Kerr says:

    Wow, I may have had the same Health Partners nurse! I certainly had the same painful experience when I suddenly developed and passed two stones about 15 years ago. I’ll spare all the gory details, but my wife thought I was dying and called the ambulance – thankfully avoiding your experience with delayed help.

    But there isn’t a whole lot more the hospital can even do then except explain the situation. You have to pass the stones and it is painful. Yes, prevention is the best (and about only) medicine.

    In my case it resulted from a pretty rare condition from something in the neck called a parathyroid gland. They are generally inactive but mine had for some reason awoken with a vengeance and was causing calcium not to be processed in my body – hence the buildup of kidney stones. It required surgery (cutting my neck open!) but it all went well and I’ve only had one stone since. But again prevention efforts…

    Thanks for sharing story, Joe. I’m guessing there are a lot more of us out there. Hopefully we can help others or, at least, misery loves company.

  3. Sheila Ards says:

    I am so sorry to hear about your ordeal with kidney stones.. But, thank you for the advice!

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