A few months ago, the always-running-behind and sometimes-unreliable clinic at the VA hospital discovered that Danny’s right kidney was harboring a particularly ominous kidney stone. (He is, after all, a stone farmer.) This kidney stone. It was hoss. In CT scans, it leered and sometimes winked cheekily at the lab technician.
Because said stone was so hoss, they scheduled Danny for an outpatient surgery called lithotripsy. This procedure, while a surgery, does not actually involve any cutting of flesh or stitches. Instead, they arrange you on an operating table and blast your body with sound waves, breaking the offending stone into many smaller, less offensive pebbles.
The doctors recommended this surgery with an attitude best described as devil may care. Oh, you’ll be awake. There may be some discomfort, but you will certainly be able to go to work the next morning. And just listen to the name! Lith-OH-trip-see! Doesn’t it sound like fun? Perhaps a new hybrid genre of trip-hop and folk?
Okay, I made up that last part. But seriously. Devil. May. Care.
So I drive Danny to the VA and spend a few hours in a very depressing, quite small waiting room, mostly full of nervous patients waiting for their colonoscopies. They complain (justifiably) that they’ve been without food or water for six hours now while Regis and Kelly interview Zac Efron on an ancient television bolted to the ceiling. A few desperately bored Vietnam vets page through coffee-stained magazines featuring muscle cars. The computer monitor on the wall meant to tell me Danny’s status — pre-op, in procedure, recovery — is decipherable only according to an overly complex system of colors, initials, and numbers. And his name isn’t on there, anyway.
Turns out that this procedure is not as fun as its name suggests. Upon our arrival, the nurse at intake had informed Danny that indeed, he would be completely knocked out for the procedure — and boy, he should be grateful for that anesthetic, because yowza would it hurt otherwise! Nice. In the early afternoon, Danny wakes up, remembers we’re in Houston, and regains feeling in his extremities. He considers stealing the toasty hospital socks. We head home. Curiously, the discharging nurse tells us to come back if we notice any profuse and uncontrollable bleeding.
Sitting in the car, Danny begins to notice that something is definitely in his throat, something unfamiliar and alarming. He feels nauseous and suspects that all is not right. When we get home, I call the emergency surgery clinic number provided by Danny’s doctor, and I am connected with a woman who seems genuinely surprised that I am asking for her advice. She half-listens to my concerns about Danny’s swollen throat and queasiness before telling me that if I’m so worried about his well-being that maybe I should take him into triage? She wasn’t so sure. Maybe?
As I hang up, I imagine her filing her nails. Triage at the VA? Danny shakes his head violently.
Turns out they had given him a breathing tube during surgery, although they had promised only a tube in his nose. His uvula — that pendulum at the back of his throat — is swollen, resting uncomfortably on the back of his tongue. And turns out lithotripsy means at least two days off work and a prescription for some pretty heavy duty painkillers. And a strange, circular red mark on his side, like some alien crop circle.
“Who knew sound waves could be so painful?” I ask Danny when he’s feeling well enough to sit up and burn through some serious instant Netflix.
“Dolphins,” Danny replies.
Danny’s lithotripsy may have left him with a drug hangover and a sore kidney, but it left me irritated and indignant. I understand that the VA is flooded with patients, many with needs more critical than Danny’s. But his procedure and recovery were difficult mostly due to misinformation.
I read his experiences at the VA last week against countless anecdotal and statistical accounts of the way vets are often treated and mistreated, and I need to yell at someone. After all, Danny’s swollen throat is merely an inconvenience when compared to the Iraq War vet who cannot get disability because shrapnel has somehow been defined as a pre-existing condition. While the waiting room last week was overcrowded and uncomfortable, I have heard too many stories, from friends and strangers, of vets trying for weeks to make appointments with a therapist at the VA, only to be shuttled from answering service to answering service.
I’m sure they wouldn’t mind an hour or two in the waiting room.