A Surprise, A Kidney Stone, and a Dream Come True: The Story of My First International Trip

 Growing up, we didn’t do a whole lot of traveling – we would go visit family almost every year, we would go camping, and go to a nearby waterpark for a week in the summer, but there weren’t many big vacations

In high school, I took French classes every year, and really loved it. I felt like I was pretty good at it too. It was particularly fun because my maiden name, Thibaudeau, is very French. My ancestors came from France to Quebec, and later to the United States, so learning the language of my heritage was a very cool connection. 

 During my senior year, my mom thought it would be a great idea to surprise me with a senior trip. I’m the oldest child, and so I was the first to graduate. She thought the trip was a good idea, but had to convince my dad a bit. He liked the idea in theory, but wasn’t sure about spending the money on just a vacation. My mom convinced him, though, that it should happen, and I’m so glad she did! 

The Surprise

So in February of my senior year, my parents gathered me and my brothers together and said, “Stephanie and Jonathan (my next younger brother) we have a surprise for you!” and they passed around a brown paper grocery sack filled with several objects that were clues for this surprise.

We pulled out a can of French cut green beans, a croissant, and a few other objects. Jonathan was completely clueless, but I figured it out immediately – what can I say, I’ve always been a precocious child!

The surprise was an 8 day trip to France for me and Jonathan with my dad that would happen two months out. (My mom would have gone, but she had just had a baby and wanted to stay home with him.) 

One fun part of the surprise was that they had booked the airline tickets but hadn’t planned anything else. They knew I would want to be involved in the planning process, so they left it open for me to come up with the itinerary. 

 Anticipation was extremely high and we were all so excited to go.

The Day of Departure

The day we were leaving, my dad went into work for morning before our evening flight. Mom got a call mid-morning and Dad was gasping, telling her he was in pain and that he thought it was a kidney stone moving. At first he was going to try to tough it out and went to rest in the “wellness room,” but it escalated quickly (as these things do) so that he was in absolutely horrendous pain and thrashing around from the pain. 

His co-worker calls Mom and says very perfunctorily, without preamble, “We need to take him to the hospital. Which hospital do you want him to go to?”

All the while Dad is going out of his mind in pain, even throwing up in the parking lot at work and again at the hospital. So… definitely not how you want to feel a few hours before a transatlantic flight! 

In the ER, it took three doses of morphine before his pain got under control. 

Negotiations Begin

When the doctor walks in, Dad is all like, “I have a plane to catch. You have 4 hours to get this thing out of me.” 

Doctor: “Um…I’m not sure that’s going to happen.” 

Dad, being nice and polite, but very specific: “You have four hours.” 

Doctor, hedging, “I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

Dad is just like, “I have to be on that plane!”

The CAT scan results come back that it’s a 6 mm stone and too big to pass. He is going to need surgery. 

Dad is absolutely devastated because now there is no hope of making the flight.

Mom got on immediately and started looking to see if there was a way to change the flights. Because they booked with points, they could move the flight dates, but the new flights had to be the same number of points.

There was room the very next day on a flight but then after that, no flights were available for three weeks. Mom and Dad had prepaid hotels, and we were on spring break so this was really the best time – plus in three weeks there were a ton of conflicts.

Basically, if we didn’t go the next day, it wasn’t going to happen at all.

So she rebooked for the following day even though they weren’t sure it was going to work with Dad going into surgery and recovering from the stone.

At the hospital, Mom and Dad are explaining the whole situation to the urologist surgeon: It’s the kids’ senior trip, they’re going to France, they’re so excited, we have this whole thing planned out, and can we make the flight tomorrow???

The doctor said, “Well, we will do the surgery and see what we can do. If he can meet some basic requirements, I’ll authorize him to go home tonight.” Otherwise, he’d have to stay overnight in the hospital, and for sure miss the flight the next day. 

Surgery

So right when our original flight was taking off, Dad went into surgery. During surgery they blasted the stone and put in a stent to offset the swelling caused by the stone, with the plan being for the stent to stay in a couple weeks. 

Surgery went fine, and as he’s coming out of surgery, he’s trying to put on this good face of “I’m totally fine” for when us kids come to see him.  

When we came to the hospital, I was of course, super disappointed, but I love my dad a ton and was most concerned with his health and how he was doing. But… I’m still holding out hope that somehow this is going to still work out (at this point I didn’t know about Mom switching the tickets to the next day).

I walk in the door and take one look at him – he looks really awful, super white and ashen, can’t talk clearly, and was just totally wiped out. I say “hi dad” and walk straight into the bathroom and start crying. I was just like, “I care about dad the most and I want him to be okay. I’m also just soooo sad about our trip! It’s definitely not happening now.” 

(Dad wasn’t upset or anything – he totally understood that the disappointment was really devastating to me (and to him!))

That night, I go to bed thinking the whole thing is off.

Miraculously though, he ended up meeting their minimum qualifications to get sent home late that night.

The Next Day

The next morning, he gets up 7am and he gets ready to go back into work, saying, “I am going on this trip, so I have to finish this stuff!”

I walk out my room in the morning and see Dad sitting at the computer, ostensibly looking totally fine. 

“Dad???” What’re you doing?” 

“Oh, we’re going to France today.” 

“WHAATTTT?”

Until that point I didn’t know it was an option, I thought the whole thing was over. And shockingly, he actually did look totally normal. 

This is just so on par with how my dad is – he has the most determined mind, especially when it comes to being sick or doing something even if the circumstances are less than ideal. He’s always been just like, “I WILL go. I will just BE okay.”

So Dad goes into work and everyone is like, “What in the heck are you doing here?”

Dad: “I’m going on this trip.”

“You just had surgery!”

“I am going to France. I have a plane to catch this afternoon.”

Everyone thought he was nutso. (Aaaaaand… he kind of was, ha!)

But sure enough, that evening Dad, Jonathan, and I were all on our flight to Paris.

 

France

We had the most magical time in France. We wandered around Paris, eating croissants and pain au chocolat, visiting all the high points, and being completely enchanted with all the beautiful spots.

Pastries are LIFE

The day we got to France (if you’re keeping track, that would be two days after dad’s surgery), we climbed the Eiffel Tower. And we most definitely climbed those first two levels – no elevators for us! Dad had to walk slower, but he was able to do it!

Unbelievably excited to be there!

In fact, he generally did okay in France. The big thing was keeping the stent from moving. He just had to walk slowly, eat and drink small amounts at a time, and use the bathroom regularly. 

Since he couldn’t really eat big meals, he would get a baguette, stick it in our backpack, and nibble on it throughout the day. 

If he ate too much or went too long without the bathroom, the stent would start moving and that was incredibly painful. 

Which leads me to our time out in the La Rochelle area of France. 

La Rochelle

La Rochelle is in the middle of the west coast of France and is a big port city. A lot of people emigrated from France via La Rochelle, including my ancestors! So we all really wanted to visit this region and hopefully some of the areas our ancestors came from. 

Arriving in the La Rochelle train station

One day we were going from La Rochelle to a little city called Fontenay le Comte. As we’re on the road, Dad starts having some pain, so much in fact that he pulls over at a gas station in the middle of nowhere. 

Because this was 2006, our only real way of connecting with my mom was by buying “telecartes” from gas stations to use to call home. Those telecartes were not cheap! So we call home to Mom at the wonderful hour of 5 a.m. local time in Minnesota.

Dad is doing the same gaspy thing from when he first had the stones moving: “Barb, I’m in pain. Will you call the doctor and see if I can take Percocet and Vicodin at the same time. I gotta go.” *grunts in pain*

So Dad is obviously not doing well. He’s not thrashing or throwing up, but he is lying on a bench outside, on his back with his legs propped up, and he is feeling pretty crappy.

He’s essentially doing the “kidney stone squirm”: it’s impossible to get comfortable; kind of slowly writhing on his back, stomach, and side, trying to find a comfortable position.

Jonathan and I are watching this all play out, trying to help dad as best we can, calling Mom to get and give updates, and generally thinking, “Well dang, what do we do now?” We’re out in the middle of nowhere, Dad is in pain and can’t move from this picnic table, and we can’t drive the car.”

Crap.

Back home, mom’s low key freaking out. She calls and talks to the doctor “on call” (not the same doctor who did the surgery). 

Mom explains how he just had surgery a few days ago and had a stent put in and now he’s in France and having pain and he wants to know if he should take double doses. 

Doctor: Wait up, slow down. WHERE he is? 

Mom: Well, he’s in France

Doctor: What is he doing in France? He can’t be in France. He needs to be seen here!

Mom: Well, I can’t bring him in, he’s in France.

Doctor, getting irate: I can’t diagnose this over the phone. He has to be seen. I can’t believe that he’s in France. WHO AUTHORIZED THIS? I would have never authorized this!

Mom: Well, that’s where he is. Can you help us?

No one wants to do this over the phone because of liability. But when push comes to shove, they usually know what’s going on and they can do a pretty good guess. 

Doctor: All right, most likely is that the stent is moving. It’s not going to harm him at all. If it’s really bad, he can go into a clinic there in France, but it will be $$$, but if he can stand the pain and not move, things should calm down. Lie still for a little while and see if the stent stops moving and let things settle down.

As soon as mom told Dad that it’s just the stent moving and was nothing dangerous, he was like “okay, I can deal with this.” So he stayed lying down for a while until he felt better and then got up and we went on our merry way. But man oh man that was stressful for an hour or two!

We had a fantastic time exploring La Rochelle and the small villages around it. We went into old churches, visited some ruins, and got to talk to some really nice locals in western France. 

A ruined church in Marans – we discovered later that one of our ancestors had been married in this church!

Back in Paris

After La Rochelle, we went back to Paris for a day or two before heading home. During the afternoon we were heading to the Place de la Concorde. During the French Revolution, this was the spot of one of the main guillotines and it now has an obelisk marking the place.

This square is actually in the middle of the street – there is a big roundabout that goes around the Place. It’s a fairly big roundabout, with several lanes of traffic to cross to reach the middle.

So. We’re going to Place de la Concorde and dad was of course walking slowly. We see the crosswalk signal turn red, and we are still in the middle of the street. I’m walking by him, holding onto his arm, and saying “Daaaad, we’ve gotta go, those cars aren’t going to wait!”

Thankfully we did not get run over by any crazy French drivers – but when we got to the middle of the Place, Dad went and laid down on the ground by one of the fountains. 

A couple people came and asked if he was okay and Dad was just like “yes, I’m ok. It’s fine. I’m fine. Everything’s fine.” But he was in the same position on the ground that he was in outside of La Rochelle and Jonathan and I again were like “ummmm what’s happening. How are you? Are you going to be okay?”

Thankfully after 10-15 minutes of rest, Dad was fine and we continued on. And to this day, whenever I visit Paris and stop by Place de la Concorde, I think of my dad lying down in the middle of that square. 

This one’s for you, dad!

Final Thoughts

Notwithstanding the crazy medical event right before the trip and the occasional stent scares during it, we had an absolutely amazing time in France.

For me and for Dad, it was a pretty life-changing trip. Because of that trip, I continued with tons of French experiences – classes, study abroad, living in the French housing at college, etc. 

I had enjoyed learning French and was interested in France in general before this trip, but on this trip I absolutely fell in love. I loved all the beautiful buildings and cute streets and delicious food and epic monuments. I knew I desperately wanted to keep learning French. I knew I wanted to do a study abroad in Paris. I ADORED France. To date, I’ve been back 7 times and can never get enough.

More broadly, my love of travel kicked off from that trip.

For Dad, he was pretty reluctant to spend the money on something like travel – would it be worth it? For him, this trip was maybe even more impactful – he absolutely adores travel now and is all about spending money on experiences and trips. We regularly call each other to scheme about how we are going to visit some new destination or share photos of new bucket list locations.

Oh, and interestingly – while throwing up and thrashing around at work from a kidney stone and missing your flight to Paris is definitely NOT anyone’s version of ideal, the ordeal actually had a pretty big upside.

At work, Dad had a client he was trying to negotiate with and get pricing down on a contract. The client he was negotiating with heard the whole story of the kidney stone and said, “That guy scares me. He has six kids AND he went to France the day after kidney stone surgery. I’m not negotiating with him, this guy is too tough for me.” 

If those bragging rights don’t make the whole debacle worth it, I don’t know what will!

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