East Lansing, Michigan, becomes a ghost town during spring break. Families head south, often to the theme parks in Orlando. A week later, the Midwesterners return sunburned and bereft of disposable income, and, urological surgeon David Wartinger noticed, some also come home with fewer kidney stones.
Wartinger is a professor emeritus at Michigan State, where he has dealt for decades with the scourge of kidney stones, which affect around one in 10 people at some point in life. Most are small, and they pass through us without issue. But many linger in our kidneys and grow, sending hundreds of thousands of people to emergency rooms and costing around $3.8 billion every year in treatment and extraction. The pain of passing a larger stone is often compared to child birth.
For years in practice, Wartinger noticed anecdotal reports from patients who had passed small kidney stones during and immediately after visiting the Disney theme parks. It was a correlation he might not have noticed in another place, he told me: “This mass migration helped bring it to my attention.”
But one particular gentleman really inspired Wartinger. The man rode Big Thunder Mountain Railroad at Disney’s Magic Kingdom, and then passed a small stone. Then he did it again and passed another. And then another. “That was just too powerful to ignore,” Wartinger said. “I'd been hearing these anecdotal stories for a couple years, and then I thought, okay, there's really something here.”
If there were a way to make people pass stones while they were still small, Wartinger realized, the potential benefits could be enormous.