How to Not Urinate for 11 Hours

Modern reproductive health laws remain contingent on elected officials' willingness to feed catheters up their urethras.
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Wendy Davis stands on a near-empty senate floor, June 25, in Austin, Texas. (Eric Gay / AP)

At the beginning of last week, Texas state Senator Wendy Davis had 1,200 followers on Twitter. Now she has 125,000. The newly minted heroine, who got her political start protesting expansion of a local zoo, stole the hearts and minds of pro-choice and generally-pro-standing-for-things people everywhere when she filibustered the state senate to prevent a vote that would ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy.

Governor Rick Perry immediately ordered the senate back into another special session, though, so Davis may be in for another talk-standing marathon. That is, if the Texas Democrats don't flee the state to prevent quorum at the next session ... which is another real thing that elected officials sometimes do and could influence the laws that govern our reproductive systems and lives.

SHARK300200.jpgOne patient's rendering of a Foley catheter (geener/flickr)

Davis, who does not generally support abortion herself but does oppose this legislation, held the senate floor for 10 hours and 45 minutes. During that time, she was not allowed to sit, lean, or step foot out of the room, lest she implicitly yield the floor. In deference to said decorum, a colleague disclosed to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Davis was "outfitted with a catheter."

If you're fortunate enough to have never been similarly outfitted -- which is usually done during hospitalization, surgery, or for people otherwise physically/medically unable to get to a bathroom or even use a bedpan -- it involves passing a flexible tube (about the same circumference as a pencil) all the way up through your urethra into your bladder. The tube has a little balloon on the tip, which can be inflated once it's in place to keep it from sliding back out. Once the catheter tip is inside your bladder, urine flows freely, no longer within your control, directly from your bladder into a bag that can be attached to your leg.

Davis is not at all the first politician to have used a catheter, though the practice is not widely discussed. Senator Rand Paul, a doctor by training, captured the general sentiment nicely this past March when he explained, after a lengthy filibuster: "I've put them in [for patients] before, and I really decided against it."

Strom Thurmond famously opted to keep a bucket in an adjacent cloakroom, where he could relieve himself while still keeping a foot on the Senate floor. During a 2001 filibuster, St. Louis Alderwoman Irene Smith had aides surround her with tablecloths while she relieved herself in a trash can in the middle of City Hall. O beautiful for spacious skies.

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Sen. Tommy Williams holds up a finger to vote yes for giving Sen. Wendy Davis a rules violation during her filibuster. Davis was given a second warning for breaking filibuster rules by receiving help from Sen. Rodney Ellis, who gave her a back brace. (Eric Gay / AP)


Urinary catheterization is a very common and generally safe procedure, though. Of course nothing is 100 percent: It increases your risk for UTIs, and very rarely, something inside of you gets punctured or ruptures. 

Most people rate the experience somewhere between unpleasant and quite unpleasant. Though less common superlative accounts do exist, like that of karmic alignment for misogynist-of-note Tucker Max: "The act of inserting that fire hose into my penis was so horribly painful it made me forget what was, to that point, the worst pain of my life."

The discomfort and potential complications of a urinary catheter may seem a small price to pay to influence major legislation, though. The last time a Texas session got going in the abortion arena, they ended up requiring women seeking abortion to undergo a vaginal ultrasound and "hear a description of the fetus" at least 24 hours ahead of the procedure, in addition to cutting the state's family planning budget by two-thirds. Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin now say that as a direct result of that cut, 117 Texas family planning clinics stopped receiving state financing and 56 closed. 144,000 fewer women received health services, and 30,000 fewer unintended pregnancies were averted in 2012 compared to 2010.

If you do feel called to catheterize yourself for the greater good (or for evil, depending on your perspective), the National Institutes of Health offers important guidelines: " ... Use firm, gentle pressure. Do not force it. Start over if it is not going in well. Try to relax and breathe deeply."

That's actually good advice for anything.

Presented by

James Hamblin, MD, is a senior editor at The Atlantic. He writes the health column for the monthly magazine and hosts the video series If Our Bodies Could Talk.

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