The fall of my sophomore year at Illinois Wesleyan began with high expectations. I had finished my freshman year with straight A’s. I had a steady girlfriend. I was newly elected president of the Methodist Student Movement. I was enjoying my classes including “Greek II,” “Creative Writing,” and “Biology,” which I hadn’t gotten to take in high school. And I was preparing for the next summer to be spent in Mexico with a Catholic student work project. But after the first few weeks I began to suffer sharp pains in my back, which only grew worse as I grew weaker every day. Finally, early on one weekday morning in October, I made it into the dormitory bathroom with severe pain in my bladder and penis, pouring bloody urine into the toilet until I passed out. When I awoke and the blood was just oozing, I dressed and headed for the campus health service. I thought I was dying.
Nurse Velma Arnold looked at me knowingly as I explained what had happened. “You have VD,” she said. It took a minute for that to soak in, before I said, “But that is impossible.” And she said, “That’s what they all say. Obviously I can’t help you. You will have to see Dr. Cunningham. I will need to know who your sexual partners have been.” It was hard to make her believe that I couldn’t answer the last question, since I hadn’t had any. She finally let me go anyway.
Later that day, still in misery, I saw Dr. Cunningham, who seemed to take a broader view of the matter. He recommended that I drink as much beer as I could while I was waiting to see Dr. Killough, the urologist. He suspected that I was experiencing kidney stones or a urinary tract infection or both, which is what it turned out to be. Having never drunk an alcoholic beverage, and being 19, under the legal drinking age, on a campus where possession of alcohol was considered cause for expulsion, I was not inclined to take his advice about the beer. He didn’t give me a prescription for beer, but he did give me an antibiotic sulfa drug. By the time I saw Dr. Killough, a day or two later, and he confirmed the double diagnosis with a cystoscope, I was also beginning to show the hives of an allergic reaction to the sulfa drug. The cystoscope, experienced regularly during the next several months, along with a few days in the hospital over Christmas break, removed every ounce of false modesty that I had developed in my 19 years. I had discovered more about my own genitalia than I ever wanted to know.
I was not completely clear of infection or signs of kidney stones until the next summer. The plans for a Mexican work trip cancelled, I wished my Catholic friends and girlfriend farewell, took a summer course in the history of Christianity, and looked for something else to do.