Kidney Stones at Sea

Okay, I’m in Italy; a little drama is permitted… But, trying to pass kidney stones while sailing alone is no laughing matter. This fashionable model for the anti-spasmodic tonic Schoum Forte clearly shares my pain. Illustration credit: Soluzion Schoum Forte

There was that full horizontal knockdown from a rogue wave roaring out of the Southern Ocean. Also during these travels around the globe aboard Flying Fish: I cleaved open my scalp on a sharp edge of fiberglass, I broke a tooth, I nearly severed a toe. And, by the grace of God, I somehow avoided COVID-19 despite being in a crowded market in Langkawi during Chinese New Year in February 2020. Yet, no drama I have experienced compares with trying to pass a kidney stone alone on this boat.

I am on the island of San Pietro in Sardinia today. Carloforte is a lovely town, even through this lens of pulsating pain emanating from the area of my kidneys. There are no internists or urologists here, so I am self-diagnosing. I sought confirmation from a local pharmacist who winced at my Italian and then recommended an anti-spasmodic kidney detox tonic called Soluzione Schoum Forte. The tonic looks like a local Vermentino, but unfortunately, it doesn’t taste like one. First failed lesson: Understand the dosage: I thought, “due cucchiai da tavola, quattro-sei volte al giorno” meant, “take four to six spoonfuls twice a day.” Wrong. I got it backward. In the aftermath of that first triple dosage, I thought I would see that little girl with the spinning head from the Exorcist

It is estimated by the National Kidney Foundation that one in ten people will have a kidney stone at some time in their lives. Hopefully it won’t happen on a boat in a distant port-of-call. Kidney stones form when certain chemicals become concentrated enough in the urine to form crystals. These crystals grow, and as they make their way through the urinary tract, it hurts.

“Is this what killed Popeye?”

Peta Owens-Liston, ARUP Laboratories Science Writer

There are a lot of myths about what causes and prevents kidney stones. They can be caused by various conditions, including diet, dehydration, medications, infections, and genetics. Foods rich in oxalate, such as spinach, can contribute to stone formation. One thing is sure, passing a kidney stone is memorable. “It woke me up in the middle of the night. It left me gasping and sobbing. Screaming. Someone was sticking a knife in me and slowly turning it,” medical correspondent Petra Owens-Liston writes.

Preventative measures include changes to your diet. I don’t drink enough water when I am on the boat, I use too much salt, I enjoy coffee and good wine. Those can all lead to dehydration and, ultimately, kidney stones. Remedies can include medically blasting the kidney with sonic waves to break up stones. As a last resort, kidney stones can be surgically removed. One friend suggested a more straightforward solution. Her brother had a kidney stone and he felt the pain move down his back as the stone proceeded through the urinary tract. “Jump up and down a lot,” she said. “Gravity is your friend.” My Plan B to help move things along is to try a massage therapist; my happy ending would be the exorcism of this demon that lives in my plumbing.

Those are not seashells. A collection of kidney stones from ARUP Laboratories

With all seriousness, I realize that passing a kidney stone is a “first world problem.” To those who are truly suffering from more severe events in their lives, I mean no affront. We tend to focus on our own little orbit, especially when we are alone. Still, it is helpful to remember that there are more serious issues outside of our personal bubble.

Sailing is not just about the wind and the sea; equally important are the places to which this boat takes me.

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Text and Photography © Jeffrey Cardenas 2021

Let this be a time of grace and peace in our lives   –Fr. John Baker